Why can’t the world’s biggest IC company get any market share in the cellular space? I’ve asked myself that question a bunch of times over the years, and find myself asking it again in light of a few recent announcements from the company (another from ISSCC and another from EETimes).
When the cellular market started to take off, Intel was a strong flash memory supplier. They decided to get into the GSM baseband processor business and their approach was to integrate the baseband processor with the flash. Intel had a competitive ARM-based microcontroller core, and acquired a DSP core through a joint development. The resulting chip, code-named Manitoba, was a flop. Why did Manitoba fail? In my view, the flash integration was a bad idea. There was too much on the chip for low-end applications, not enough for high-end applications, and the more-complex flash process made the baseband too expensive.
A few years later, Intel spent $1.6B to acquire Israel-based DSPC, which at the time was the only open-market vendor of CDMA chips aside from Qualcomm. However, as things progressed, DSPC’s only significant customer exited the handset business. There were a few more developments by that group, but none gained any market traction. Eventually the Intel wireless group was sold off (for much less than $1.6B), and that was the end of Intel in cellular. Or was it?
A couple of years ago, Intel bought Infineon’s wireless business for another $1.4B. Infineon was the supplier of RF and baseband chips to Apple for the first couple of iPhone models. In addition, Infineon had just replaced TI as Nokia’s GSM chip supplier on the strength of a fully-integrated RF-plus-baseband chip as TI struggled to get their “LoCosto” single-chip solution using “Digital RF Processing” to production. Thus it looked like Intel had made the acquisition that would put it in highly-visible, leading wireless handset customers.
Then Apple switched to Qualcomm baseband chips. I’m not sure if the single-chip solution is still being used at Nokia. There are lots of alternatives now, and handset manufacturers are more likely to switch suppliers now than in the past.
Intel’s engineers gave several interesting wireless-related papers at this year’s ISSCC. The first, sort of hidden in a processor session, described the integration of an 802.11 transceiver on the same chip as a dual-core Atom processor. They did some smart things to prevent the noise from the processor from trashing the radio. But the die photo shows that the RF transceiver takes more real estate that the two Atom cores.
An Intel executive, commenting on these developments, noted that “Commercial versions of (the Atom+Wi-Fi) chips could emerge by mid-decade” and “We can now build a Wi-Fi radio and hopefully in the not too distant future a cellular radio to make digital RF practical for SoCs.”
The first statement shows that Intel doesn’t yet understand that the mobile market moves too fast to allow research chips to develop into commercial chips over a 3-year time frame. And he needs to look back at TI’s attempt to evolve their DRP technology from Bluetooth to cellular. Part 15 systems like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are very forgiving of poor sensitivity and transmitter defects. Cellular radios are much much harder to integrate.
Intel has now announced their first design wins in handsets using the Atom-based baseband chip…all with second-tier handset manufacturers. And the multi-year deal announced in January between Intel and Motorola (or perhaps I should say Google) seems to only relate to Atom-based apps processors to run Android, not the “real wireless” stuff. The block diagram for the platform shows Intel (actually Infineon technology) cellular communications, but TI for Wi-Fi/BT.