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Google promises to make Android Intel-friendly


Intel has been playing catch-up in the smartphone and tablet market for some time, trying to get its Atom processor into the exploding mobile computing market. But it’s difficult to make any headway when the most popular smartphone platforms have only been optimized for a competing processing architecture. Intel, however, hopes to change its fortunes with a new agreement with Google.

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Google today promised to optimize its Android operating system for the X86 architecture used by Atom, after years of solely supporting the ARM architecture used by Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, Nvidia and pretty much every other mobile chipset maker in the world.

“Combining Android with Intel’s low power smartphone roadmap opens up more opportunity for innovation and choice,” said Andy Rubin, senior vice president of Mobile at Google, in a statement (Briefing Room: Intel and Google to optimize Android for Intel architecture). “This collaboration will drive the Android ecosystem forward.”

Technically Android is an open-source platform, allowing any vendor to mold the software to the hardware they want to use. In reality though, the ARM instruction set’s dominance in mobile computing has pushed Google toward building its platform around ARM cores. By partnering with Intel, Google is promising to give Atom the same treatment—future versions of Android will be designed to interlock with X86 just as easily as they do ARM.

That doesn’t mean that future handset makers will immediately flock to Intel. Atom is essentially a scaled-down version of its traditional PC architecture and carries the PC traditional power-hungry characteristics. Meanwhile, the ARM processors in smart phones today evolved from the applications processors of past mobile devices, which have always been optimized to limit power consumption (Telephony: Intel’s Wireless Dreams). Intel has managed to push down power consumption in recent versions of Atom and has succeeded in getting it into many netbooks and other portable computing devices. The smartphone and tablet remain elusive, though. Intel promises that future versions of Atom will improve upon those power gains, allowing it scale down to the smartphone.

Intel acquired Infineon last year, giving it a big foothold in the wireless baseband business (CP: Intel buys Infineon). As Intel solves Atom’s power issues, it may start integrating baseband and application processing into a single chipset, which is a key advantage of the dominant smartphone silicon maker Qualcomm. Nvidia is pursuing a similar strategy using the basebands of recently acquired Icera (Unfiltered: Qualcomm faces new threats to its mobile silicon dominance).

As Intel attempts to horn in Qualcomm’s turf, Qualcomm is doing the opposite. At this year’s Uplinq conference it revealed that it has optimized the latest version of its Snapdragon platform for Windows 8 with Microsoft’s blessing (CP: Qualcomm looking to break the Wintel grip). True to its word, Microsoft today at the Build conference gave the first demos of Windows 8, using a prototype tablet PC running on a Snapdragon processor and a Gobi wireless module. Windows 8 apparently will draw the line dividing PC and mobile architectures between the smartphone and tablet. That doesn’t mean Qualcomm chips will wind up in desktop PCs, but Qualcomm does appear to be working right in its comfort zone.


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