In recent months Intel’s new CEO Brian Krzanich and President Renee James made several interesting statements, signalling to Wall Street that the chipmaker gets it – it has to do more in mobile.
With smartphone shipments expected to hit one billion per year as early as next year, Intel’s newfound love of mobile chips is hardly surprising. In recent months Intel told the world that it’s now treating Atom just like Core, which means Atom will no longer look like an unwanted stepchild. On the face of it this is good news for shareholders and investors, but scratch the surface it doesn’t look too encouraging.
As a result, most analysts expect Intel to post lacklustre results on Tuesday, which is hardly surprising given the state of the PC market, which is still the bulk of Intel’s core business. Analysts expect revenue of $13.47 billion, 0.1 percent higher year-on-year, but earnings per share are estimated at $0.53, or 8.6 percent down over last year. But negative EPS forecasts aren’t the biggest problem facing Intel. Most analysts agree that 2014 won’t be much better, but there are some factors that indicate even these bleak forecasts might be too optimistic.
The first Bay Trail products are starting to appear and initial performance reports are encouraging, but they are just that – encouraging rather than groundbreaking. Benchmarks seem to indicate that Bay Trail-T tablets end up marginally slower than Qualcomm 800 and Tegra 4 based devices, which are a bit older, too. With prices ranging from $32 to $37, the first batch of Bay Trail chips also cost a bit more than their ARM competitors, but a direct comparison is not possible as ARM players don’t disclose the unit prices of their chips.
Furthermore Intel still lacks integrated LTE support, which means Bay Trail isn’t going to score big phone design wins. Intel hopes to roll out its first LTE enabled products next year, but there’s still some ambiguity. For example, Intel discrete modems are still built on TSMC silicon and it could be a couple of years before they end up on the die of an Intel SoC built in an Intel fab. While Intel could roll out the first two-chip solution next year, it’s highly unlikely that it will have a proper integrated solution before 2015.
This is a bit of a problem for more reasons than one. Many analysts don’t dig deep enough, some of these technical issues go under the radar – so they stick to Intel’s promise of LTE in 2014. Quark is also being overhyped, although it won’t generate any significant revenue over the next few years. Many analysts also believe x86 support is still a big deal, and to some extent it is, but the relevance of x86 is often exaggerated and it is diminishing as we speak. That is why Intel is talking up hybrids, or 2-in-1s – because legacy x86 support is a lot more important for hybrids than regular tablets. In smartphones, x86 support is as useless as a Facebook share button on a porn site.
However, this is where it gets interesting, because Intel is also promising $99 Bay Trail tablets. Back at IDF, Krzanich said Intel’s new tablet platform would “go below $100 by Q4 2013,” giving the impression that Intel can do dirt cheap tablets as well. We are not sure that it can, not unless it subsidizes them with heaps of cash, and we all know how well that went with Ultrabooks.
As for phones, Intel is still dead in the water and this won’t change anytime soon. Apple is quite happy designing its own custom chips and having them built by the lowest bidder. Samsung is going for off-the-shelf IP and manufacturing its Exynos 5 chips in 28nm, and it will hit 20nm soon. Qualcomm dominates the market and Intel can’t erode its lead over the next couple of product cycles. Even if Intel comes up with competitive smartphone chips in a year or two, who will they be for? Apple won’t buy them, neither will Samsung. This would leave Intel in an awkward position of fighting over scraps with heavy hitters like Qualcomm and a range of smaller ARM players like Nvidia and MediaTek.
This is hardly a viable long-term mobile strategy. Intel is basically doing the only thing it can – and doing the only thing that can be done and calling it a strategy doesn't really make for much of a strategy.