It's happening: Intel and Rockchip are teaming up to develop low-cost SoCs for Android devices

Intel's new Quark chip, designed for wearables

Computing juggernaut Intel ran laps around their biggest competitor, AMD, and almost brought AMD to its knees a few years ago. However, there is one major avenue where Intel completely missed the mark: The smartphone and tablet world. 

Today sees the announcement of Intel working alongside the Chinese company Rockchip in an attempt to penetrate the tablet and smartphone market. The history behind these two companies and why they are in their "strategic alliance" is fairly interesting however, and it is worth exploring Intel's background and position in the portable device market. Although Intel remains and continues to be the gold standard for x86/-64 desktops and laptops, it is by no means a major competitor in smartphones and tablets. Some tablets with Intel chipsets are doing fairly well, most obviously the Surface, but that has much more to do with the attractiveness of a full-blown Windows OS than anything else.

The reason Intel completely missed the mark is debatable, but what contributed to their lack of market penetration more than anything was power consumption. ARM-based chipsets, such as those found in Windows Phones and the Surface RT, Apple iPad and iPhones, and Samsung's Galaxy tablets and smartphones, consumed significantly less power than Intel's offerings at the time. In the portable world, especially with smaller devices, battery life is everything; and where Intel was offering 6 hours of battery life, ARM was able to offer four times more, so it became the natural choice (although it's worth mentioning that Intel has made some significant strides in low-power chipsets since that time).

Ultimately, smartphones and tablets have become almost completely powered by ARM-based chipsets. This reality solidified itself when Microsoft released the Surface RT, which featured a specialized version of Windows and Office that supports the ARM-based processors in the device.

"The strategic agreement with Rockchip is an example of Intel's commitment to take pragmatic and different approaches to grow our presence in the global mobile market by more quickly delivering a broader portfolio of Intel architecture and communications technology solutions" - Brian Krzanich, Intel CEO.

On the other hand, Rockchip entered the consumer market almost a decade ago to ride the MP3/MP4 player wave. Their low-power ARM-based chipsets were extremely successful, and were heavily adopted by many manufacturers. Not slowing down, Rockchip continued to ride the wave of portable electronics and ultimately helped shuttle the giant Chinese smartphone and tablet market. Google's Android OS meant that Chinese manufacturers didn't need to focus on operating systems anymore, and could direct their full attention towards hardware.

Companies like Rockchip began providing extremely low-cost cookie-cutter SoCs that came with a predetermined amount of RAM, clock frequency, GPU, inputs (mini SD, USB) and so on, meaning that manufacturers don't even need to bother customizing Android to suit the chipset. It became merely a matter of choosing a display, choosing the battery, and choosing the case to fit it in.

To take from the famous Apple slogan: this changed everything -- literally. Not only for smartphone competition, but also for adoption of smartphones in lower socioeconomic regions of the world. and more importantly Android's worldwide domination of the smartphone and tablet market.

Intel's upcoming "Devil's Canyon" processor

Onto today's news, it has been announced that Intel has joined hands with Rockchip in a strategic agreement for them to accelerate and increase the adoption of Intel chipsets (both architecture and communication solutions) for smartphones and tablets around the world.

Based on the agreement, the two companies will work together to develop and deliver a family of Intel-based SoCs, named "SoFIA," aimed at mobile devices. The SoFIA family will feature multiple core chipsets based on Intel's Atom processor range, with integrations of Intel's 3G modem technology.

SoFIA's dual-core 3G variant is expected to be released at the end of this year, with a quad-core 3G variant and quad-core LTE variant in the first half of 2015. SoFIA is "expected to be price competitive," which means that Intel will be directly competing with other companies such as Allwinner who provide low-cost SoCs. How this will impact the market will be extremely interesting for multiple reasons:

  • We are seeing the direct cooperation between a Chinese semiconductor company and the world's largest semiconductor chip maker, Intel.
  • Will Intel manage to price their SoCs to compete alongside the cut-throat Chinese market?
  • How will Intel manage to convince Chinese manufacturers to adopt their line of SoCs over the ARM-based SoCs they are familiar with, such as those from Mediatek or Allwinner?
  • If these SoCs are successful, what does it mean for the future of ARM-based devices which have been experiencing a giant growth in the last decade?
  • What does Rockchip stand to gain from the collaboration besides the obvious expansion of their portfolio? That is, if Intel gains dominance over the smartphone and tablet market, it would mean the end for many Chinese ARM-based SoC makers.

Either way, this announcement from Intel makes it clear that Intel acknowledges they have been largely unsuccessful in penetrating the portable device market, and that they are now willing to throw all their efforts behind making sure they gain some traction.

"The combination of Intel's leading architecture and modem technology with our leading mobile design capability brings greater choice to the growing global market for mobile devices in the entry and value segments." - Min Li, Rockchip CEO. 

Source: Intel | Images via Intel, Engadget

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68k said,
Why haven't Intel considered a x86 phone market?

Because it's easier to copy what's already been done in ARM than to reinvent the x86 processor.

68k said,
Why haven't Intel considered a x86 phone market?

They have with things like the Intel Atom Z2460, Z2480, Z2580, etc. They just never priced it competitively enough or engaged the manufacturers about it. When it costs more than Qualcomm's or Nvidia's offering, yet delivers significantly less performance, it makes no sense to adopt.

Intel needs to make a better product and sell it at a cheaper price at this point in order to enter any market-- low end or high end.

How will they be any different from the current Bay Trials? And seriously 2015? Like they expect everyone to wait for them to catch up?

Catch up to who? I swear people here act like certain manufacturers are leaps and bounds over everyone else. Right now the smartphone and tablet market is really about which OS you prefer.

JHBrown said,
Catch up to who? I swear people here act like certain manufacturers are leaps and bounds over everyone else. Right now the smartphone and tablet market is really about which OS you prefer.
I wanted to rephrase this. I was grocery shopping with the "Mrs" at 9:30 pm. Anyhow, I basically meant 2015 is not to late. Cheers!

JHBrown said,
I wanted to rephrase this. I was grocery shopping with the "Mrs" at 9:30 pm. Anyhow, I basically meant 2015 is not to late. Cheers!

Well, 2015 seems to be an interesting year in ARM. AMD started to make their own arm based cores, qualcomm coming out with news ones etc. Only thing that makes me worried about this deal is rockchip, the worst they could have picked, at least pick mediatek :/

JHBrown said,
Right now the smartphone and tablet market is really about which OS you prefer.

Cant argue with that, but lately it feels like Snapdragon is to smartphones what Pentium was for computers in the 90's: a metonym of 'computer'. I know my statement it's quite a stretch, but seriously, Qualcomm is doing a great job!

even Samsung dropped their "precious" Exynos (or whatever it was the name) for Snapdragon.