Most following the space know that leading chipmaker Intel Corp. (NASDAQ: INTC ) missed the smartphone train when it came to core technology that runs the tablets and computers in your pocket today.
The Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL ) iPhone with its proprietary A7 processor run the iOS platform. Qualcomm‘s Snapdragon, along with Samsung (KSE: 005930.KS) SoCs (short for system on chip), dominate the fragmented Android operating system. So what’s the world’s largest chipmaker, Intel, to do? Why, invent a new game, of course. Enter “Project Edison” and Intel’s “strong commitment” to the wearable category.
At his CES keynote, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich introduced its Edison project with a completely different spin on the future of the mobile industry and the wearable device revolution that is upon us. It’s a marked shift in the direction of technology development that breaks from the smartphone (computer in your pocket) concept and what the industry calls “tethered devices.” These are Smartwatches like the Samsung Galaxy Gear that include a small display on the wrist, and use Bluetooth wireless to talk to the Galaxy phone (AKA computer) in your purse or pocket. Sony (NYSE: SNE ) is also taking this tethered device approach with its LifeLog wearable sensor device that will send a stream of bio and environmental data back to the smartphone.
No tether to the smartphone
But since Intel isn’t the chip running those devices in your pocket or purse, they’ve moved away from that tethered approach with — you guessed it — a new system on chip (SoC) computer platform. It’s based on Intel’s low-power Quark technology wrapped up in a small SD card sized form factor with built-in wireless connectivity. The point of all this: you don’t need to tether back to a smartphone because you’re adding the “smarts” to the wearable device.
To that end, during his January keynote, Krzanich showed device prototypes and announced new initiatives to help jump-start the market. Shown was a wearable Smartwatch with a full-blown system on chip on the wrist and communication links that include both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to talk to other devices; smart “bio-fitness” ear buds that track activity like running, and supply data on your heart rate, even smart baby monitoring devices that attach to a sleeping child. Intel also announced a new “technology collaboration” with the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and the Make it Wearable Technology Challenge, offering prize money to developers looking to get into the wearable space using the Intel non-tethered way to get there. Up to $1.3 million in prize money is on the table.
So is Intel on the right track? Yes and no
To some the future of wearable devices will take off with the advent of feather-light flexible displays with just enough sensors and communication links back to the smartphone to make them unobtrusive, yet functional. Some speculate that the elusive Apple iWatch is waiting not on the processing power that Intel offers in its Project Edison, but just such a flexible display panel — thin, light, and robust enough to deliver to the mainstream.
To date, most all smart watch wearables are still of the rigid glass type, as we wait for flexible displays to catch up. I see big upside opportunity here and believe Apple, and others like Samsung and Sony, will benefit from its mighty infrastructure and (eventual) game-changing devices empowered by new flexible display technology. For Intel, it may be a hard sell to carry around yet another powerful processor.
But for Intel there are other fish to fry, and the market goes beyond just wearables. And going beyond the tethered device, Intel is opening an entire universe of “things,” what Intel calls the Internet of Things that will live independent and need its own low-powered processing, often with no display at all. Here Project Edison may indeed thrive, and deliver new markets for the company to expand to.
So mid- to long-term, there will be room for yet another dominant chipmaker in the mobile domain.