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Intel confronts a big mobile challenge: Native compatibility

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Credit: REUTERS/Pichi Chuang

Last week, Intel’s Jeff McVeigh revealed the missing piece to the puzzle that is Intel’s plan to retake lost ground in the hyper-competitive mobile system on a chip (SoC) market. At the Android Developer Conference, AnDevCon, McVeigh explained how native compatibility will play a central role. Because of its successful run with the WinTel PC, Intel understands that compatibility is crucial to its mobile success. Intel has shown it can deliver excellent Android app compatibility for devices built with its Atom SoCs, as demonstrated by the Motorola Razor i that runs almost all apps downloaded from the Google Play store. Android’s Dalvik virtual machine (VM) makes this compatibility possible since the apps written for it are processor-independent.

But Intel still has further to go to improve compatibility because app developers now frequently bypass Android’s Dalvik VM for some parts of their apps in favor of the faster native C language. According to McVeigh, two thirds of the top 2,000 apps in the Google Play Store use natively compiled C code, the same language in which Android, the Dalvik VM, and the Android libraries are mostly written.

The natively compiled apps run faster and more efficiently, but at the cost of compatibility. The compiled code is targeted to a particular processor core’s instruction set. In the Android universe, this instruction set is almost always the ARM instruction set. This is a compatibility problem for Intel because its Atom mobile processors use its X86 instruction set.

Apps that use the ARM instruction set still run on Intel mobile devices because Intel-specific Android versions have a compatibility layer called Houdini that maps ARM instructions into X86 instructions. This isn’t a new approach. For example, Apple used a similar technique when the Mac transitioned from the IBM Power PC processor to Intel processors. This compatibility comes with a price - apps run slower. As a result, the user experience of apps that push the limits of current mobile hardware will suffer.

Mc Veigh’s solution is to make it as easy as possible to compile natively written apps for the X86 instruction set. Intel has released a beta of its native development environment called Intel Integrated Native Developer Experience, (INDE) and written plugins for Eclipse the most Android developers use to build for Android so the apps can be X86 compatible and execute efficiently on Atom processor-based hardware.

But for developers to spend the extra time to produce an Atom-specific version of their apps, Intel has to be relevant, and relevance is measured in the size of the population of Intel Atom mobile devices in the hands of consumers. Intel’s goals this year are modest - 40 million tablets shipped by its manufacturing partners. The company’s partners, such as Lenovo and Asus, are also shipping smartphones based on Intel’s technology outside of North America, but the company has not quantified a goal for this device category. Compared to the 245.4 million tablets and 1.2 billion smartphones that IDC has predicted to ship in total in 2014, Intel may have some difficulty getting developers’ attention.

Intel has been playing catch up to become relevant in the mobile market since its acquisition of mobile communications chip manufacturer Infinion to compete with leader Qualcomm. Intel’s mobile processor market share was only 0.2% according to market researcher Strategy Analytics, compared to Qualcomm’s 54%.

Intel has both the technology and manufacturing partners to become relevant. The company’s announcement of the SoFIA SoC that integrates four Atom cores with a 3G modem due to ship by its partner Rockchip in the middle of 2015 is a step to build both volume and relevancy. The SoFIA SoC is targeted at the sub $120 Chinese smartphone and tablet market, which is expected to experience big gains. Later this year, Intel will introduce Merrifield an SoC that's effectively the phone version of Bay Trail used in tablets. Its recently announced XMM 7160 and XMM 7260 LTE-4G modems have been well received, the 7160 chosen by Asus, Dell, Lenovo, and Samsung and the 7260 noticed for its near-ubiquitous compatibility with mobile networks radio spectrum.

With the addition of native app compatibility, Intel has all the pieces of the puzzle, 3G/4G modem technologies, mobile processors and tremendous chip design and fabrication capabilities. Relevancy depends on Intel’s SoC offering becoming robust enough to meet Qualcomm head-on. Intel will be filling in its mobile SoC road map in the coming years to offer devices with the price and performance that  fit the many mobile device price and performance categories (low-end, mid-range and high-end smartphones, as well as tablets) where Intel is seeing some success. Intel’s relevance among developers depends on how many devices running its SoCs end up in the hands of consumers.

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