After years of insignificant adoption among manufacturers, Intel is apparently throwing in the towel on smartphone chips. The company's ultra-low-power Atom line of processors has had a tough time competing with low-cost players like MediaTek and, obviously, the incumbent mobile SoC juggernaut, Qualcomm.
Specifically, Intel is cancelling the upcoming Broxton platform and the already-delayed SoFIA fully-integrated mobile chipset, both of which were slotted in the "Atom x3" family and designed specifically for smartphones and tablets. The tablet-focused Atom x5 and x7 currently based on the Cherry Trail platform will continue to ship, though it is unclear if that platform's successor - Willow Trail - will enter production or if it, too, has been axed (Intel did not comment on Willow Trail, as it was not expected to ship for some time). But it seems safe to say that Intel's involvement in the cheap tablet business will likely be winding down, as well.
Up in the air is also Intel's larger LTE modem business, which the company has been attempting to grow of late. Without Intel's own smartphone chipsets in which to integrate those modems, that leaves Intel in a space dominated by the likes of Qualcomm and other entrenched players. Intel is betting big on 5G, though (even if 5G has yet to really be clearly defined), so it may simply be biding its time while standards start to emerge.
Over the past five years, Intel's smartphone ambitions have been subject to false start after false start. The company's most cohesive effort to date was 2015's introduction of the Atom x3/x5/x7 family, which while marketed as highly related products, were in fact something of a mashup of several platforms, one of which (SoFIA) never came to be. Here's a brief timeline.
- 2011: Google announced Android would officially be optimized for Intel's x86 architecture.
- 2012: Intel unveiled the Medfield platform and announced a "strategic partnership" with Motorola that likely fizzled shortly after Google took full control of the company four months later. Motorola had anticipated to start launching Medfield smartphones by Summer 2012 and did manage to sneak out the RAZR i, but nothing else of note ever came of it.
- 2013: Intel unveils Lexington, which officially took on the Atom name, and launched Clover Trail+ later that year, probably among the company's most successful chipsets by volume in Android devices. It appeared in many tablets, even including Samsung's Galaxy Tab 3 lineup. Intel also announced the Silvermont CPU architecture around that time.
- 2014: Intel announced Moorefield and Merrifield, its first 64-bit mobile chips, with CPUs on the previously-announced Silvermont architecture.
- 2015: The ZenFone 2, probably Intel's highest-profile smartphone launch ever, is announced. The phone's highly-competitive pricing was a key selling point, but battery life on LTE was noticeably poor, and ASUS launched numerous other models in the ZenFone 2 range without Intel chips - not exactly a ringing endorsement. At MWC 2015, Intel announced the previously-mentioned x3/x5/x7 rebranding effort.
At MWC two months ago, we sat in on Intel's press conference (which is where the above weird photo is from)... for about ten minutes, until it was clear the conference was focusing almost exclusively on 5G and "IoT," and we left. In hindsight, that was probably a bit of foreshadowing for the news that dropped yesterday.
Intel, of course, likely doesn't want this framed as them "quitting" the mobile business, but rather just taking a time out and reorganizing. Given that business has been bleeding a tremendous amount of money, though, I can't say I see Intel getting back in the mobile SoC game any time soon.