Intel-Nokia alliance: all you need to know

24th Jun 2009 | 14:42

Intel-Nokia alliance: all you need to know

Our 5 predictions for what it all means

The background

As strategic alliances go, they don't come much bigger than yesterday's news that Intel and Nokia are teaming up to create what they describe as "a new class of mobile device."

That's the world's biggest chip maker and the global leader in communications shacking up. Tantalising stuff, no doubt. However, actual details in yesterday's announcement were frustratingly thin.

Needless to say, we want to know much more. Who better, therefore, to grill than Rod O'Shea, Intel's embedded technology head honcho in Europe and its local expert on the company's plans regarding the Nokia deal?

O'Shea isn't able to shed too much more light on the specific implications of the Intel-Nokia tie up. Asked whether the deal falls within Intel's existing ultramobile Atom roadmap, for instance, O'Shea told us that it's too early to comment on product details, though he did confirm that as far as Intel is concerned, "low power computing is Atom."

Nor can he expand on the intriguing but vague suggestion made by Intel's global mobile guru, Anand Chandrasekher, that the partnership will lead to innovative new devices that break new ground for "size, shape, material and screen technology".

Smartphones on the way?

To cut a long story short, for now both Intel and Nokia are keeping their cards very close to their chests on this one. Both Chandrasekher and O'Shea have refused to be drawn on a timeframe for when the first fruits of this alliance will appear.

So, what do we actually know? One thing that has been confirmed is that the chips involved will indeed be based on Intel's x86 architecture. Fully PC compatible, in other words.

Slightly confusing the matter, however, was insistence from Nokia's Kai Öistämö yesterday that the deal would have "no impact" on the Finnish firm's relationships with its various ARM processor partners. The question is: how can it not have an impact?

We also know that the devices will deliver the "full internet" in a pocketable form factor and also support voice communications. All of which makes this "new class of device" sound an awful lot like a smartphone even if both Intel and Nokia are conspicuously reluctant to use that baggage-ladden term.

The other major piece of the puzzle, of course, is software.

This is probably the least mysterious part of the deal: the operating system of choice will be Linux, most probably Moblin or Maemo flavoured, although it's unclear whether the deal will preclude Nokia from joining the Google Android bandwagon.

Our 5 predictions for what it all means

With all that in mind, here's TechRadar's take on the likely shape of things to come from Intel and Nokia:

1. New smartphones

Call them what you will, but the most important devices to spring out of the deal will essentially be smartphones. What's more, they will largely replace Nokia's existing ARM-based smartphone handsets, not supplement them.

2. New form factors

Other form factors and device types will no doubt also emerge from Intel and Nokia's joint loins. Already, rumours are circulating regarding a new Atom-based Nokia netbook. Think mini tablets, smartbooks and the like but with the main emphasis on pocketable gadgets.

3. They'll use off the shelf Intel chips

As for the specific chips involved, it's virtually unprecedented for Intel to produce unique silicon for a single customer. We therefore reckon Nokia will be using essentially off-the-shelf Intel chips, perhaps with unique packaging a la Apple MacBook Air.

4. Nokia vs Apple - both with Intel chips?

In fact, the Apple model is probably a good guide to how the Intel-Nokia relationship will work going forward. The Apple angle also adds spice to the back story. It will certainly be fascinating to see how Intel juggles its relationships with both Apple and Nokia as the two companies compete head on in the smartphone market.

This process will take time, of course, and for now Nokia needs to keep its ARM partners sweet. Hence its reluctance to utter the word "smartphone" in the vicinity of the Intel deal and its supportive words for ARM going forward.

Anyway, given the dearth of details, we suspect the first actual handsets, rather than the aforementioned netbook, could be some way out, probably late 2010 at the earliest and possibly 2011.

5. It'll use next gen Medfield, not Atom chips

If so, that suggests the target silicon will not be the upcoming Moorestown Atom platform, but its successor Medfield. Little is currently know of the latter other than the fact that it's a fully integrated system-on-a-chip design.

All in all, Intel and Nokia's joint announcement raises many more questions than it answers. However, if Intel eventually succeeds in its quest to assimilate the smartphone market, we'll almost definitely look back on yesterday as the crucial turning point.

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