Intel has been in the news recently with their announcement that they're going to start building ARM-based chips. This doesn't mean they're abandoning their x86 architecture, rather, this is simple contract manufacturing for other companies. Of course the natural question is, "Why does Intel have so much excess capacity that they'd stoop to making chips for competitors?" Or, put another way, "Why isn't Intel selling more chips?"
The answer is obvious and has been discussed ad nauseum over the past five years. Quite simply, Intel missed the boat when it came to mobile devices. Intel grew up hitched to Microsoft, with both companies locked in a symbiotic marketing loop. (You need a faster Intel chip to enable the best features of the latest Microsoft OS, and you need the latest Microsoft OS to unlock the best features of the newest Intel chips.)
Then obviously the ARM processors caught once people started caring more about small size and battery life on mobile devices than raw performance. (See my related article from last year about the mobile device triangle: "High performance, low weight, and long battery life. Pick two.")
The Intel / Microsoft relationship of the past two decades is starting to show some signs of age. To be clear, this isn't just an Intel problem. Microsoft has this thing called Windows which is so huge and bloated that it all but requires the power of an Intel chip today. After all, consider what happened when Microsoft tried to build those Surface tablets. One of them had Intel Inside which had decent performance but was heavy and had poor battery life, and the other ran on ARM (Windows RT) which was light and had great battery life but was slow as molasses.
Ok, so that's our current state that everyone reading this is familiar with.
Moving forward, what's Intel to do?
I've heard various folks suggest that Intel needs to get consumers interested in the Intel brand again. Remember that "Intel Inside" campaign from the nineties? All Intel has to do is do that again. (Someone at Intel deserves a gold medal for convincing consumers that they "needed" something that didn't make one bit of difference.)
The problem is that while consumers of the nineties did want Intel Inside, consumers today don't give a hoot about the processor inside their mobile devices. (As I said in a speech a few weeks ago, today's consumers care about "Apple Outside," not "Intel Inside.")
Pop quiz: What processor is in your phone?
Answer: Who gives a shit?
It's Apple. Or Samsung. Or Android. Or Kindle. That's all we care about today.
Despite their client device missteps over the past five or so years, Intel seems to be getting their act together. Their new Bay Trail Atom-based system-on-a-chip offerings have the technical chops to hold their own, being faster than any ARM product on the market while consuming less power. So that's awesome! The problem is they're still based around an x86 architecture, which means they can be used by what, Windows? Linux? Mac OS X?
Where's the iPad running on x86? I don't mean iPad like whatever-Intel-strong-arms-HP-into-making, I mean iPad like iPad. Where is that? And what about Android? Sure, there's an open source build-it-yourself version, and there are a whopping two devices listed on Wikipedia despite Google and Intel's 2011 push for Android on x86. (I don't know about you, but whenever I think of Android and Intel I just keep picturing this beautiful thing. R.I.P.)
But in today's world, why would a mobile device maker choose an Intel platform over ARM? More importantly, why would a consumer? The only people who care about Intel are IT Pros, and we've long established that they're no longer in charge of what devices their users use.
So that's Intel's challenge for the next five years. Maybe if they made the Intel Inside logo more round with a stem and a bite out of it...