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Intel's wireless dreams

Are we witnessing the birth of the next big wireless vendor? Intel is branching out into the wireless industry in more ways than one, but the industry questions whether a company so focused on the processor can meet the strict demands of mobility.

Intel is certainly no stranger to the wireless industry. It made its mark in the Wi-Fi business with the introduction of the Centrino platform in 2003, but over the last five years it has been projecting itself beyond the wireless LAN world, traditionally the domain of computing and networking companies, into the well-tended pastures of mobile WANs.

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Intel has embraced WiMAX as the technology that will extend the broadband connectivity of wired telecom to mobility. It's back in the mobile processor business after abandoning the XScale processor line in 2006, creating a new chipset called Atom targeted at low-cost notebook PCs and a new category of hand-helds called mobile Internet devices (MIDs). As in its previous mobile iterations, Intel is jumping into a market dominated by deeply entrenched wireless silicon vendors that consequently view Intel as an interloper — a CPU giant unsatisfied with its unassailable dominance in the computing market, extending its reach into new and unfamiliar technologies beyond its core competency.

A few years ago that might have been true, said Siavash Alamouti, Intel fellow and chief technology officer of Intel's wireless group. With XScale, Intel clearly was going after the traditional mobile silicon market, an area where voice and maintaining mobile connectivity ruled and computing was little more than an afterthought. The landscape, however, has changed in the last two years.

“The killer app is no longer any service that is provided by an operator,” Alamouti said. “The killer app is the World Wide Web.”

The definitions of mobile data and the mobile Internet have changed. Instead of adding data connectivity and limited computing capabilities to traditional wireless handsets, the industry is evolving into one in which the traditional PC experience with its connection to the wireline Internet is being extended to the mobile device, Alamouti said. The distinction may be subtle, but it's an important one. Instead of making a phone smarter, Intel believes, the industry is moving toward making the computer mobile. There is evidence for that philosophical shift throughout the industry: Mobile browsers are rendering full Web pages rather than mobile-optimized sites; Linux-based open operating systems are gaining ground over proprietary handset operating systems; operators are shifting from a service model that emphasizes their own unique services to one that promises unfettered access to the established services of the Internet.

In this new mobile Internet environment, Intel is no longer the interloper — it's the incumbent, Alamouti said. While XScale may have tried to play in the wireless silicon vendors' core competency, the Intel view of the mobile data world dictates that Qualcomm and TI are now playing in Intel's core competency: computing. Focusing on computing and the Internet proper brings in reams of established players — not just chipset-makers, but PC manufacturers, multimedia gadget vendors and millions of application developers. The Motorolas, Nokias and Samsungs of the world made phones, and they made them well. The new mobile device isn't a phone, Alamouti said, it's a computer — it may be small, it even may resemble a handset, but bottom line it's a computer.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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