A Brief History of Atom: Why Ditching Smartphones Was the Best Thing Intel Could Have Done
The news was preceded first by the surprise departure of three senior company officials, including Corporate Vice President and Group Communications and Devices General Manager Aicha Evans, and then by a massive series of dismissals which eliminated 12,000 jobs representing around 11% of the company’s total workforce. . We all knew big changes were in the air, but it was still surprising that smartphone and tablet processors were phased out entirely. Rarely, if ever, do we see companies of this size walk away from such high-stakes battles.
Smartphones are now sold as commodities, with reduced costs at every opportunity. Profits don’t necessarily follow volumes, and even if they did, device makers had no reason to leave established players such as Qualcomm and MediaTek. Intel worked with carriers and manufacturers, created reference designs, subsidized manufacturing and marketing costs, contributed heavily to Android itself, and eventually was used in a number of fast-shipping products. time, including the Motorola RAZR i, a variety of Asus ZenFone models, and our very own Xolo X900. This momentum did not last, however, largely because manufacturers quickly shifted to processors with built-in cellular modems – which put Intel back at the start.
These are all signs of massive unrest, but here’s why that’s not a bad thing at all for a company like Intel at this point. Intel was doing well with its consumer business when the first Atoms shipped. They were created because Intel was on board and immediately saw the appeal of Asus’ small, low-cost EeePC. Indeed, Atom quickly became the basis on which millions of netbooks, as they came to be called, were sold.
Tiny desktop cases and all-in-ones soon followed, and Intel created variants of the Atom to meet any new purpose that seemed like an opportunity: network storage, communications equipment, devices streaming media, internet televisions, microservers, mobile internet devices, and possibly tablets. Atom was the perfect exploration vehicle for a whole new universe of small, low-power devices. Not all of these ventures were successful for Intel – several of these product categories disappeared altogether.
Undoubtedly, all of these spaces were also potential goldmines for ARM, and part of the reason Intel got into it was to keep competitors out. When Intel started seeing ARM as a serious threat and realized it needed at least a nominal presence in the smartphone segment, Atom was the natural platform to start adapting to. . However, Intel’s lowest power offering was designed to be inexpensive and not necessarily small. It wasn’t efficient enough to run without a fan, let alone crammed into a tiny phone body. It took a long time for Atom-based phones to be functional, and even then it was hard to convince manufacturers to go all out.
Former Intel President Renee James demonstrates smartphones and other Atom-powered devices during her keynote address at Computex 2014.
Intel has continued to learn – Atom processors have found their way into a fair number of tablets, which offer more space for heat dissipation and better batteries. The same underlying architecture became good enough to power entry-level laptops and hybrid tablets, and processors were sold under the Celeron and Pentium names – Intel’s other value-oriented brands. These will apparently live under the Intel Core i and Core m processors, where they strike a necessary balance between performance and value.
Intel might have lost less time and money with a better strategy, but for what it’s worth, it learned a lot. Atom has always been an exploratory vehicle, and whether the name lives on or not, the work that has gone into it will be invaluable to future endeavours.
If all the Atom processors go away and Intel eventually cedes its small share of the low-end Android tablet market, it will simply focus on other segments. Tablets or premium hybrids could still be on the cards. Atom has found its way into other small devices, including the Intel Compute Stick, which is certainly more than just a novelty. We can’t forget Intel’s IoT push either – an Atom derivative powers the Edison development board, and the button-sized Curie is based on a Quark microcontroller that could never have existed without Atom.
Does this mean Intel is done with smartphones for good? Given the size of the ecosystem, this is highly unlikely. Intel still makes very good discrete cellular modems. If the rumors of an iPhone contract win are accurate, production will continue or even increase to feed Apple well. Intel made it clear last year that IoT and 5G are seen as massive growth opportunities, and that “computing” and “connectivity” are nothing without each other. Later this year we’ll see the launch of Optane, a line of solid-state memory and storage products that promise unprecedented speeds, and it will be yet another market to tap into.
Opportunities exist in virtual reality and augmented reality, sensors, infrastructure, and all sorts of consumer and industrial products that could all relate to mobile devices – smartphones and beyond.
Abandoning current Atom plans was a necessary step to maintain company agility and focus its efforts where it can do the most good. Atom was Intel’s best exploratory vehicle, and even if the name dies, enough of its history and legacy will remain.