Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC), the 800-pound gorilla of the semiconductor market, has finally entered the wireless court. After years of trying, the company said its processors will be designed into smartphones and tablet PCs at three of the world's leading OEMs.
At the annual Consumer Electronics Show, Intel announced critical design deals with China Unicom Ltd. (NYSE: CHU), Lenovo Group Ltd. (Hong Kong: 992), and Motorola Mobility Inc. (NYSE: MMI) -- its first successful challenge of ARM Ltd. (Nasdaq: ARMHY; London: ARM) in the market. Lenovo, Motorola, and China Unicom will roll out devices based on Intel architecture this year. The world's leading semiconductor company will be getting the validation it has long sought as a player in the wireless industry.
"When great silicon and software technology meets great mobile and design innovation, amazing things can happen," Paul Otellini, Intel's president and CEO, said in a press release. "Our long-term relationship with Motorola Mobility will help accelerate Intel architecture into new mobile market segments."
The significance of these design wins for Intel cannot be overemphasized. For years, the company has struggled to break into the sector. It initially fought vainly against the dominance of ARM architecture. Even Intel's PC OEM customers worried that another near-monopoly would result if it gained a large following in the wireless equipment market. There was even speculation that its processors, most of which were designed for the personal computer market, were power hogs and would not be so optimal for the cellular industry.
Efforts to prove the doubters wrong led the company to pour billions into acquisitions and product development initiatives. Many of the acquisitions -- some early in the last decade -- failed to produce the desired results, and Intel could not make a dent in the sector. More recently, it began deploying its enormous internal engineering resources and the huge cash hoard built up in the PC microprocessor business. Intel has since developed chipsets and reference designs for the wireless market.
These efforts produced the Atom processor, which China Unicom, Lenovo, and Motorola will use. The agreements gave Intel the bragging rights it has long desired and signaled clearly that it won't walk away from the sector, despite the past failures. Few companies would like to have Intel as a rival, as Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) (NYSE: AMD) can attest.
Meanwhile, in England, a nightmarish journey is beginning for ARM, the IP company that rapidly built up a commanding customer base in the wireless sector on the strength of patronage by customers seeking to ward off another monopoly. ARM has maintained its leading position in this market, but Intel's latest design wins will most certainly break the dam wall. If other OEMs and telecoms embrace the Intel architecture (a lot of incentives from the company would help, especially in a price-challenged market), ARM's marketshare could slip dramatically over the next few years.
Of course, Intel could face another failure if its chips fail to catch fire. In that case, the company would be forced to try again. As Otellini said in a CES presentation, the world is transitioning from a focus on personal computers to a focus on personal computing. Intel cannot afford to be excluded from this wirelessly charged world. Somehow, it has to build on this toehold it has finally secured.