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May 06, 2013

Does New Haswell SoC Mean Intel is Finally and Truly Goin' Mobile?

Can Intel move forward quickly enough with its upcoming Haswell SoC (system on a chip) to finally and truly make mobility its own? Can Intel restore proper world order in the semiconductor world? Can Intel reclaim a leading role many of us would never have believed it would lose just a few short years ago? And can Intel help Microsoft reclaim its own Windows mojo (which is critical to Intel) in the form of Windows Blue? Can it help Apple to innovate? The short answer is that we believe it can – the reasons as to why require a somewhat longer answer.

Back in 1972, The Who penned a song called "Goin' Mobile." Of course back then "mobile" meant something quite different than it does today, but the interesting thing is that the sentiments remain unchanged relative to today's use of "mobile." Take this verse for example:

Out in the woods
Or in the city
It's all the same to me
When I'm drivin' free, the world's my home
When I'm mobile

Anytime, anywhere, anyplace – all well and good, but what does this have to do with Intel and its upcoming Haswell SoCs? Essentially it serves to completely underscore that The Who did a far better job 41 years ago of capturing what today's mobility is about than Intel has managed to do over the last several years. As a result, a large number of tech people have lately been writing Intel off as a company well past its prime and completely unsure of how to operate within today's hyper-modern mobile world.

Would anyone have guessed five to seven years ago that Intel would not be dominating today's mobile landscape? We don't think so, but this has turned out to be the case, and Intel has left it to the likes of ARM, Nvidia, Qualcomm and Samsung to more or less define today's mobile processor hierarchy. We'd mention Apple here, but Apple has been leaning on ARM's core design architectures for its own A-series SoCs, and on Samsung Semiconductor for fabricatiing them. Again, five to seven years ago, would anyone have guessed that Apple and Intel weren't going to be closely joined at the hip on all things having to do with the cutting edge of mobile?

Intel has been stuck in a PC rut these last five to seven years, and even Microsoft came to realize that it had to make its own mobile move around Intel, which it accomplished by delivering its Windows 8 RT, designed entirely to operate on ARM-based hardware. Intel is still in deep with Microsoft of course, but Microsoft had to hedge its mobile bets.

Finally, it has become clear that, as IDC, Gartner and many others have stressed, the PC market is no longer a growth market. Rumors of its demise are greatly exaggerated, but there is no denying that at best the PC market will likely still deliver today's enterprise scale but will rapidly diminish over time on the consumer side. Growth is over, and if your primary business customer is the PC maker then by definition one's own growth is over – hence all the hand wringing over Intel's future.

Ultrabooks as Next Generation Laptops – Not a Winning Mobile Strategy

Intel has long moved at a snail's pace to remedy its mobile situation. We'll give the company some credit in any case for at least having figured out over the last 12 to 18 months that mobility - not as it relates to laptops but as it relates to smartphones and tablets - matters far more than anything else. Intel has always had mobile-centric products, but it has always chosen to deliver them within the context of its formerly safe PC universe. The most obvious manifestation of this was the original marketing push behind its Ultrabook concept.

Note that Ultrabook with the upper case "U" is in fact an Intel-owned trademark. No vendor can use the term "Ultrabook" without a license from Intel, and Intel has had a stringent set of rules in terms of both hardware and software requirements that vendors must meet in order to gain a license for it. We'll leave these actual rules of the Ultrabook road out of this discussion, but we will take note that all of Intel's marketing efforts behind Ultrabooks to date have been about delivering "next generation laptops."

Therein lies Intel's major mistake - it has squandered the last two years trying to convince the public (and to some degree, its laptop manufacturing partners) that the world isn't nearly as interested in mobility as it is in next generation laptops. Alas. Even extremely lightweight next generation Ultrabooks are looked at by the public as PCs. For most people looking to acquire tablets to be marketed a next generation laptop is a non-starter - and this is the key reason that Utrabooks to date have failed to win over the public in any form or fashion. "Goin' Mobile" hasn't been the central piece of the message and Intel has been paying for that mistake.

Haswell is Mobile

It turns out that you can teach an old dog the occasional new trick, and from where we sit, it appears to us that Intel has figured out that it has to learn that new trick - mobility. Haswell is the fourth generation of Intel's core SoC technology, but it takes several important and entirely new steps that finally move Intel into Goin' Mobile.

Slated to officially be released on June 4, 2013, the platform itself delivers on new, fully optimized 22 nanometer FinFET fabrication technology (the current generation of Ivy SoCs use 22 nm processes but aren't optimized to take full advantage of it as Haswell does). This is critical for allowing Intel to deliver highly integrated, blazingly fast and ultra power efficient SoCs that can truly be used across the entire range of mobile devices.

Haswell brings with it huge power savings (the chips use extremely low current levels), huge performance increases (the processor can also be greatly overclocked) and - perhaps most critical for the mobile market - huge improvements in integrated graphics capabilities. Last, but very far from least, Haswell delivers on four instruction set extensions that add critical new processing capabilities across a broad range of device types.

For Intel there is also a much richer benefit to these capabilities - ultimately Haswell SoCs form the core of a modular "converged core" architecture and instruction set that spans the entire range of what its manufacturing partners can deliver - from tablets (and possibly smartphones in the future) to Ultrabooks and all the way to large scale servers and supercomputers. The following graphic, courtesy of Intel, shows this range.

To be sure, as Haswell is prepared for official market launch, there will be hiccups. Most recently, for example, a report emerged claiming that there is a problem with Haswell's implementation of USB 3.0. As noted by Intel: "4th gen Core is on track for a midyear launch. Intel issued a PCN (Product Change Notification) documenting a chipset USB errata and stating that chipsets with the errata will be in production during the initial ramp. But Intel has confirmed that there is no chance of data loss or corruption. This issue has only been observed with a small subset of USB SuperSpeed thumb drives and does not affect other USB peripherals. We take all customer issues seriously and should any customer have a question or concern they can always contact Intel customer support."

What does all that mean? Simple: Intel is aware of the issue, it only affects a small percentage of USB 3.0 devices, and next iterations of the Haswell SoC will have the issue resolved. Small blips such as this are to be expected and are meaningless in terms of the much larger (heck the much "huger") picture for Intel.

It's All About the Marketing

Here is the key message we hope Intel's new CEO, Brian Krzanich, will bring to Intel (he's been around a long time at Intel but we hope that doesn't stop him) - its all about the right marketing. And that marketing must lead with mobility.

It's safe for us to conclude that Haswell will provide Intel with the exact platform it needs in order to not only service its traditional customers but to move Intel forward into the mobile space for real. What Intel needs to do, in turn, is ensure that it leads with mobile going forward. Intel must craft a deep, deep message of mobility - it has to convince the world that mobility is now its DNA. We don't mean that mobility is now included in Intel's overall thinking - we mean that Intel must lead with mobility. If it does, the rest will take care of itself.

The term "Ultrabook" must be redefined - or really be much more directly marketed - to be interchangeable with the word "mobility." That is, Ultrabook must be marketed to stand for the notion of "world's most powerful mobile device." Smartphones and tablets need to become part of the Ultrabook mobile continuum. How so?

In today's world we have the following order: laptop, Ultrabook, tablet and smartphone. Laptops and Ultrabooks are perceived as "PCs" and tablets and smartphones are perceived as mobile devices.

Going forward, Intel must reorient the world's sense of the mobile continuum as follows: smartphone, tablet, Ultrabook - where all three are true mobile devices and where the perception becomes: the smartphone is the lightweight, the tablet the intermediary and the Ultrabook is the ultimate expression of powerful mobile devices. It's a major change. Most important, it needs to be positioned as the right device to transcend both enterprise and consumer needs. The perception must become: The Ultrabook is the right next upgrade for PCs and for mobile devices.

Finally, Haswell will allow both Microsoft and Apple to integrate their operating system platforms in ways that are currently not possible. Recently we wrote of Apple innovation to mean bringing Mac OS and iOS together - Intel can now drive this with Apple. Finally, we certainly believe that Windows Blue is going to take advantage of Haswell - Intel can help Microsoft earn its own far stronger mobile street cred through properly positioning the Intel-Haswell mobile continuum.

A great deal hinges on Haswell for Intel - ultimately it's all about Goin' Mobile.

Edited by Alisen Downey

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