Some of you may be wondering why x86 smartphones no longer exist, but many others probably didn’t even know they existed in the first place. Starting in 2012, companies began launching smartphones using Intel’s Atom x86 CPUs, a product line the company touted as one of its most prominent. The smartphone market was lucrative enough on its own, but there were other use cases that the Atom would have been perfect for. Intel just needed to break Arm’s grip on phones, and Intel CPUs would be everywhere.
As of 2018, x86 smartphones have gone the way of the dodo, and the Atom has managed to make its way onto our list of the worst Intel CPUs ever. In retrospect, it’s not incredible that Intel could tinker so badly. After all, it’s been screwing up literally every segment of its business since 2017 until recently. But Intel’s failure to break into smartphones was more complicated than bad technology or corporate mistakes.
The brief history of Atom and smartphones
Since the mid-2000s, both Intel and AMD have focused on developing smaller, more efficient versions of their traditional silicon. AMD was content to just make smaller PCs and laptops with its Bobcat APUs, but Intel had big ideas with its competing Atom chips, first announced in 2008. It wasn’t going to be just home theater PCs and small laptops; he was about to conquer the world. We’d see the Atom in music players, televisions, GPS devices, handheld game consoles, and yes, smartphones. Intel would march straight into Arm’s most important stronghold and capture it.
Of course Atom didn’t get into smartphones right away because Intel needed to lay the groundwork. So 2008 and 2009 came and went without x86 phones. Intel finally unveiled the Atom CPU it would be using for phones in 2010, called Moorestown. Sure, it still had to contend with the way phone makers were used to making ARM chips, but Moorestown was so advanced and powerful that Intel was confident it would convince three of the top five smartphone companies to build devices using Atom chips. .
A lot of ink has been spilled as to why Intel’s phone strategy never got anywhere.
2010 has come and gone without x86 smartphone announcements, but no one expected it so soon. Then 2011 came and went with no smartphones or even any announcements for a future one. The first Atom-based phone came out in 2012, but it was just a reference design made by Intel and Google, not a high-performance device as everyone wanted. Around the same time, Motorola, ZTE and Lava became Intel’s first partners in smartphones. Finally, we were seeing some momentum.
But for the next four years, nothing really happened: no major design hits, no blazing-fast Atom CPUs out there. But in 2016, Intel made a big announcement: It was canceling its upcoming Atom SoCs for phones. And that was all. No SoC meant no more x86 smartphones, even though the Atom was still getting updates. Intel made one last Atom SoC for a company it had a deal with, but that’s about it. The latest Atom-powered smartphone came out in 2018 and it was bad.
This is where the very short history of x86 smartphones ends. A lot of ink has been spilled as to why Intel’s phone strategy never got anywhere, but there were some big reasons Intel had to call it quits in 2016. Here’s the autopsy report.
Atom has had a hard time breaking into the software ecosystem of phones
The biggest and most obvious obstacle for Intel was the software. Many people knew it was going to be a struggle the moment it launched in 2008 because Arm dominated the smartphone market. Now, it wasn’t just companies that were used to working with Arm the company or using ARM chips in their phones. The biggest problem was that software made for ARM CPUs couldn’t run on x86 chips.
Basically, every CPU makes use of an instruction set architecture (or ISA), which defines what the CPU can basically do and how it reads code (and I mean actual ones and zeros and not a programming language like Python or C++ ). Arm had (and still has) a big incumbent lead in phones because all software was built for ARM chips, from operating systems like iOS and Android to the apps that ran on the operating systems.
Intel knew the difficulties of introducing a new ISA to a market that was accustomed to using a different one. Itanium, the company’s first 64-bit CPUs, used the new IA-64 ISA rather than an updated version of x86 capable of 64-bit support, which was ultimately a fatal mistake for Itanium. AMD’s competing Opteron chips used the x86-64 ISA and took nearly 25% of the server market. Eventually, Intel had to throw in the towel and make their own x86-64 server chips, Xeon, and have used x86-64 for all other CPUs since then as well.
However, this was something Intel could see from a mile away, and with enough dedication to smartphones, it was something that could be overcome. In fact, there were many smartphones using Atom CPUs, such as Asus’ Zenfone series, which was one of Intel’s biggest wins. However, there were other complicating factors.
Intel didn’t give Atom the resources it needed
Atom is remembered for being quite slow and that’s not entirely unwarranted. While Atom chips weren’t universally bad (an early x86 smartphone was actually quite decent performance-wise), they couldn’t measure up to ARM-based chips from companies like Qualcomm and Apple. This was not only a consequence of bad engineering on Intel’s part, but also a lack of prioritization that disadvantaged Atom.
Process nodes are really, really important to smartphone chips. Upgrading from one process to another not only improves density (meaning you can make smaller chips or cram more parts into the same space), but it also improves performance and efficiency, which is especially important. Higher efficiency means better battery life and also better performance for the same power consumption. But Intel always lets its desktop, laptop, and server CPUs take first place over its latest processes, with Atom getting updated about a year or two after every single generation. No wonder Atom wasn’t that fast.
Extremetech he also put forward a theory that Intel didn’t want to change its business model even for Atom. Writing in 2016 soon after Intel canceled its Atom smartphone chips, the publication said that Intel “wasn’t willing to risk disrupting the economic model that had transformed it into a computing titan.” Intel didn’t want to start making low-end, cheap processors for phones when it could get bigger margins in other markets. After losing billions and billions of dollars mid-try, he gave up as times looked tough for the company.
Eventually, Intel outgrew its shortcomings
Between the extreme difficulty of entering an established hardware-software ecosystem (especially considering that Intel already had direct experience with it) and the general negligence towards Atom, it is clear that Intel has overestimated itself when it comes to smartphones. He figured that just because he was an industry titan could he enter the phone market and own it as he had desktops, laptops, and servers.
That same arrogance is what led Intel to think it could buy company after company for billions of dollars, target absurdly high generation-over-generation revenue with its 10nm node, and capture 30% of the entire silicon market. including CPUs, GPUs and FPGAs. This all blew up in Intel’s face, just as it did with x86 phones, and while it was always going to be an uphill battle for x86’s survival in the smartphone market, Intel’s recklessness was perhaps what made it doomed to failure.
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