Intel: Atom ain't dead

TechEye had the opportunity to head to Hill & Knowlton’s offices in Soho Square to meet with Bill Leszinske, General Manager, and Intel’s man leading up Atom. Knowing there are a heap of boozers nearby, of course we went along. The word from Intel is there are absolutely plans for Atom. Chipzilla will not put a bullet in its head.

First of all, the emphasis for SoCs was totally low power, high efficiency, and the potential for great graphics. Yes, we’re talking in mobile and tablets too. Sound familiar?  Sounds a bit like ARM to us. But according to Leszinske: “No, this is not a reaction to ARM.”

“It is our fundamental belief in where these market segments are going,” he says. “You kind of have to plan your microarchitecture a couple years in advance, to come to a market more quickly and add more features.” Hey, says Intel, competition with ARM ultimately results in better products for consumers. 

It begs the question: If you have to plan a couple of years in advance, why didn’t Intel plan for mobile when mobile was taking off? The round-table later engaged in a long nautical conversation, prompted by Halesie of Thinq asking if Intel had missed the ship. Intel’s argument is that it doesn’t need to be first to market to catch that ship, as with the first PCs. Though that was a small ship at the time and this is a very, very big ship. Leszinske wonders if the big ship that is mobile and tablets will run into an iceberg. That’s the Itanic, we said. “Do we wish we were already shipping smartphones?” asked Leszinske. “Sure…”

Why wasn’t it obvious a couple of years ago? “I wouldn’t say that it wasn’t,” Leszinske said in delightful double-negatives. Leszinske’s message is that Intel has, in recent years, really evolved its thinking. The pace of innovation is “starting to quicken in these market segments,” and we’re set top boxes and TVs too. 

What’s happening in technology, Intel says, is that the internet really is changing everything. 
Leszinske wouldn’t divulge particular plans in the mobile or tablet segments, but he says Intel has very specific plans. The five year roadmap must be kept a secret if it wants to be competitive.

However he did tell us that in three years we will see a 14nm process Atom, which will be the point where mobile and other chips converge. We’re told Atom is going to play a big part in Intel’s ambitions. 

Intel says it has planned for readying its fabs into producing smaller phone chips, and that it has a whole roadmap. While industry watchers believe the PC is fast heading towards mobile, Intel says it is “not changing our strategy in the PC space.” 

It looks to us like Intel wants to place Atom in emerging and fast-growing markets, but all we got was that Intel “wants to participate in any large market opportunity.”

As soon as MeeGo appeared on a slide we knew it’d be a talking point. Intel really isn’t sure if it’s going to be successful in phones. According to Leszinske, it’s just another strategy in the Linux space. “Maybe it will be successful in phones, and maybe it won’t,” he said. 

In terms of consumer electronics, it really seems Intel has become Wintel again, pinning its hopes on Windows 8 entering the fray. “We are excited about Windows 8, it’s going to add a lot of capabilities, including in enterprise.” 

“It will be interesting to see how legacy apps transition to Windows 8,” Leszinske said, echoing some statements we’ve heard from Otellini

So it seems in mobile consumer electronics, it will be Windows 8 that is Intel’s angel, not MeeGo.

Despite taking the lead with Nokia to launch an open source alternative in MeeGo – which has been essentially dropped in Espoo to releasing contractually obliged phones – Intel says it’s not frustrated about how it has turned out. “

“Obviously, every time you lose a customer… We don’t like to lose a customer,” says Intel. “Every company has to put together their strategy. Nokia felt they needed to make a change, and they made that change.” Nokia too appears to be putting its eggs into that basket called Windows 8. MeeGo may well be successful, however, in other less obvious segments. Think cars and set top boxes. 

Meanwhile, on the Ultrabook front, it is a form factor Intel does believe in. It would say that. It strikes us as bizarre that as a potential challenger to the already crowded tablet and notebook market, the Ultrabook will struggle, according to partners like Asus, to retail for less than $1,000. Not exactly affordable. Intel reassures us that “price points in new form factors vary, and come down over time.”

“If the answer is hey, the componentry is more expensive… perhaps that is the case. That comes down over time.” A message to early adopters: just wait a while.