On any given day, Mike Bell totes around six or seven working cell phones in his backpack. “They’re all checking my email,” he explains, pulling out a few for display. They’re all connected to wireless networks, too, which means they’ll ring up a small symphony when he gets a call. “The only way to see if something works is to really use it,” Bell says with a shrug. He learned that lesson during his 17 years at Apple, before his current job running Intel’s new devices group.
Here’s the curious thing: Not a single phone in Bell’s stash is for sale in the U.S. These models instead go by unfamiliar names like the Yolo (for sale in Kenya) or the Motorola RAZRi (available in Europe and Latin America). Or they’re test prototypes, which Bell politely refuses to take out of his backpack. Not incidentally, all of them rely on Intel chips and technology–unlike every leading smartphone in the U.S. Although Intel controls about 80% of the PC market and can legitimately claim to have helped invent modern computing while building one of the most sophisticated manufacturing companies on the planet, nobody there answered as the smartphone business began ringing off the hook. Instead, the Cambridge, England-based company ARM licensed its designs to America-facing companies like Qualcomm and Apple, and now dominates the market.
Bell intends to change that. Today’s mobile business is often characterized as a battle between Apple and Samsung, or as an ideological struggle between competing operating systems like Android and iOS. Yet we’re almost certainly on the cusp of a bloody war over which company will build the brains for our mobile future. Under Bell and Hermann Eul, who oversees a mobile department of roughly 9,000 people, Intel has spent the past three years plotting and planning, and the company no longer makes modest noises about its prospects. “We have the best technology,” Bell contends. “We have the radios, we have the processors, we have the process, we have the people, we have the software, we have the support. Unless we all just took the next year off, which we’re not going to do, I don’t know how we can fail.”
He admits he’s heard the usual knocks against Intel. “People say, ‘Oh, you’re that PC company,'” he says. “But I’ve gotta tell you, underestimating Intel is a big mistake.” Beginning this fall, everything the company has learned over the past 40 years of making chips can–and, Bell says, will–be put behind its mobile gambit.
A lot of smart people are bearish on Intel’s mobile prospects. Analysts at JPMorgan and Raymond James, for instance, seem skeptical that smartphone and tablet makers will mess with their ARM success and rush headlong toward Intel’s novel systems. Success in PCs, they argue, doesn’t mean success in smartphones. In desktops and laptops, performance is the paramount concern: The fastest and most muscular processors win the day. Yet in phones, every chip seeks the perfect equipoise between performance and battery drain. It’s like a car engine, where a design engineer is always balancing acceleration against gas mileage. Traditionally, PC chips have always been a little bit like a Lexus; mobile chips have been more like a Prius.
Intel seems to think it can change this equation with chips that use less power but also get better performance–an aggressive, high-stakes wager to lead in mobile as the world’s PC markets stagnate. The bet actually began a few years back, as Intel designed a family of low-power chips called the Atom. Intel engineers believe that by shrinking and reshaping the half-billion or so active elements–the transistors–within these chips, it will soon be able to boost performance and reduce battery consumption to unheard-of lows. Intel’s current mobile chips have transistors with components about 32 nanometers in width, which is about 1/3,000th the width of a human hair. Later this year, it will introduce transistors with components about 22 nanometers in width, which will increase performance by about three times and reduce power by about five times. In 2014, the transistor size is planned to go down to 14 nanometers. “And our next goal after that will be 10 nanometers,” says Mark Bohr, a senior fellow at Intel.
Won’t Intel’s competitors try the same thing? “They can’t do it,” Bell asserts. Though more likely, they just can’t do it as fast as Intel. Since most companies rely on an ecosystem to make mobile chips–licensing a design from ARM, tweaking it, then going to an independent foundry for manufacturing–they lack Intel’s capacity to vertically control and optimize their product. “As Intel gets a foot in the door, it will be increasingly difficult to kick them out,” says Len Jelinek, a semiconductor analyst at iSuppli. “They are able to use manufacturing as a competitive threat against their competition.”
Of course, what ultimately matters isn’t the technical specs but the user experience. That’s what will determine whether Intel can woo any big smartphone brands. In early tests in Europe, Intel’s present-day mobile chips have proven to be fast and efficient, an indication that the coming (and as yet untested) generation of 22 nanometer chips could be formidable. Meanwhile, the user experience is reasonably pleasant: An Android-based, Intel RAZRi built for the European market is not nearly as graphically fluid as an iPhone 4S, but it feels swift and responsive.
Bell seems undaunted by essentially going from zero market share to what he hopes will be domination. Does he think Apple would use an Intel chip in the iPhone or iPad? “Not yet,” he says, somewhat cryptically. He’s nevertheless adamant that the mobile market can change drastically in a very short time. Three years ago, Research in Motion and Nokia were among the biggest players; now they’re gasping for life. His takeaway: “You literally need one hit product to make all the difference in this market.”
In Bell’s thinking, a hit product means a faster smartphone that uses Intel technology. But it likewise means a more capable device promising a deeper world of connectivity than what we have today. “What if your tablet can charge your phone?” Bell asks. “I mean, it has a much bigger battery, so there’s no reason that couldn’t happen.” Or what if all the Intel devices in your home–phone, tablet, laptop–could act as one? Bell and Eul are already imagining that future, in which devices constantly sync, letting you begin tasks on one device and seamlessly transfer them to another.
That interconnectivity would certainly revolutionize Bell’s backpack of test phones that still ring in total oblivion of one another. Multiple devices, he maintains, “should be able to do something much better together than apart.” But before that, he needs users to pick up their first Intel phone.
Photo by Melissa Kaseman