Intel just revealed its long-term plans for the Atom range of mini-sized power-efficient CPUs: partnering with other silicon to make a complete system-on-a-chip for smart embedded computing. That means the power of an Atom will enable complex tasks that probably wouldn't have been possible before in applications such as car infotainment systems, Net-connected refrigerators—essentially every sort of "low grade" device that has a dab of computing power added to it.
The company's press release explains that the upcoming SoC will "for the first time" let other manufacturers mate their peripherals via PCI Express directly to the Atom CPU—essentially enabling super-fast connectivity to a powerful processor with a very low component count. We're not talking huge levels of of power, of course, as Atom's aren't famed for their ability to solve supercomputing tasks, but in the realm of embedded devices, this is a breakthrough.
To highlight this, Intel also pointed out its collaboration with HawTai, which is a big Chinese car manufacturer. Together the two will embed the new Atom units along with MeeGo software into the vehicle's infotainment units (MeeGo, if you remember, was recently boosted by a partnership with Nokia, designed to turn the Linux-based OS into a system ideal for this sort of application.) Intel also notes that China Mobile will utilize Intel CPUs in carefully selected mobile devices on its wireless network.
The embedded device market may not be one you think of much, but it's huge. All sorts of appliances contain embedded computers that are pretty much programmed to do the one task they're designed for and nothing more. But as the consumer expects more and more sophistication, the type of task embedded computers are needed to perform gets more complex. For example, five years ago you'd expect your in-car entertainment system to simply play CDs, manage your digital radio preferences, and intelligently switch to traffic announcements on another channel if it had RDS capability. You'd certainly not expect it to power a small full-screen display, play MP3s and MP4s, and possibly even manage GPS navigation tasks. Today, that's how the industry is going...hence the need for sophisticated SoCs like Intel's new Atom-based one.
And this may have been Intel's plan for the chips all along. Although they were at the very heart of the netbook revolution, Intel's execs knew that this was going to be a short-lived situation: The low power of netbooks is now well known, and it seems the phenomenon is all but over. Including Atoms in embedded systems, however, is a very long-tailed business indeed—particularly when you remember that you may be able to extend the capability of embedded systems by writing apps for them, making their lifespan potentially much longer.
Given that Intel's also just reported a record-breaking first quarter financial result (net income up to $2.4 billion, compared to just $629 million this time last year) this is perfect timing for this sort of announcement: The new SoC plans could cement some significant revenues for many years to come.
To keep up with this news in a more real-time setting, follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter. That QR code on the left will take you to my Twitter feed too.