Is an Atom-Based Galaxy on the Horizon?

The Samsung-Intel Relationship Deepens


It’s been a tough journey for Intel in mobile. Its track record in courting handset manufacturers has been rather rocky — and sometimes simply unlucky — despite solid efforts going back more than 15 years.

In the past, executive-level partnerships have been formed, cooperation agreements signed and many intercontinental flights made. Software engineers met with hardware engineers, spec requirements were written, and tests were run.

There’s no doubt that Intel always had the mobile vision — the difficulty has been delivering it on Intel architecture in Intel fabs, particularly when it comes to integrating Infineon’s modem technology. Intel’s sale of its XScale business was premature but the company’s finally making better progress than ARM and, under CEO Brian Krzanich, isn’t afraid to make difficult decisions.

The South Korean press is reporting that Samsung will release an Android-based smartphone later this year, running on Intel’s Moorefield chipset. This conjecture is not entirely new and a story about smartphone components wouldn’t normally deserve much attention from casual industry observers. However, this is another sign of Intel making steady advances in the post-PC era. Asus, Lenovo and others have introduced smartphones running on an Atom processor, but a Samsung device would provide Intel with heightened popularity among smartphone users. Intel’s done much to close the power and performance gap versus ARM chips, but its next battle — to change internal industry perceptions — is arguably harder.

Intel has been prudent to develop close ties with Samsung, the world’s leading handset manufacturer. The launch of the Galaxy Tab 3 in 2013 running an Atom chip was much needed and put Intel closer to its target of 40 million tablet units in 2014.

There’s certainly at least a touch of game theory here and Samsung is renowned for hedging its bets. However, we see this as an extension of a growing relationship between the two companies, given Samsung’s desire for greater industry autonomy and Intel’s need for a big break as a smartphone chipset supplier. The companies already have a track record of working together, most recently on Tizen. Although that seems unlikely to generate significant demand for Intel silicon, it’s had a wider benefit for Samsung-Intel relations.

It’d be easy to overanalyse the significance of this rumour. Tablets are the primary focus for Intel in 2014 and Intel’s tenacity in smartphones should finally earn it some points of market share in 2015 with the advent of SoFIA and a fully integrated LTE offering. At that point other chipset suppliers may feel the heat.

Click here for our expectations for the mobile semiconductor sector in 2014 and 2015 (login required).