Marriage of giants may ring in something big

A partnership between Intel and Nokia is the culmination of a decade-long process that saw mobile handsets become the world's most popular computing device.

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The technology industry has seen its share of collaborations and partnerships: from the failed first date between Apple and Motorola in music phones to the disastrous marriage of AOL and Time Warner, the greatest destruction of shareholder value in history. But this week's announcement of a new collaboration between Intel, the world's largest computer chip maker, and Nokia, the mobile phone market leader, may well be remembered as a turning point in the history of two industries that are destined to converge. The partnership, where the two will share technology and expertise in the hardware and software behind mobile phones, cements a decade-long process that has seen the mobile handset become the world's most common computing device.

More than half the world's population now have their own mobile phone, and in years to come it is clear that most of the world will first experience the internet, multimedia and computing from devices in their hands, not on their desks. Intel and AMD, which make almost every single computer central processing unit (CPU) on Earth, have played practically no part in the rise of the mobile phone. Their chips, while powerful and versatile, were too expensive, used too much power and needed too much space to be suitable for the billions of mobiles in every corner of the globe. But our phones have changed, from brick-like portable telephones to web-browsing, film-shooting touch screens that deliver our e-mails and guide us through traffic. Nokia calls its new top -of -the -line phone a "mobile computer", and Apple's iPhone is known as much for its operating system and software as it is for phone calls.

And as our phones become pocket computers, computer companies become phone makers. Intel hopes its x86 computer chip system, at the heart of personal computers for more than three decades, will become the brain of phones of the future. And few companies can make that happen like Nokia, which makes almost half the world's mobile phones. Kai Oistamo, the executive vice president for devices at Nokia, says his company's handsets are evolving beyond today's definition of phones. "Consumers are looking for mobile devices to do more, and increasingly we see the use of sensors, new materials, new applications, different designs and form factors," Mr Oistamo says. "This allows the devices to do more and that future is truly exciting. We need innovation to go far beyond today's smart phones, laptops and netbooks. We need to extend the computing power, build on common open platforms and explore new architectures that can break new ground."

Today, almost every phone on the market uses microchips based on the ARM design, an alternative to the x86 system used by Intel and AMD. And while these two dominate the personal computer market, ARM dominates almost everything else, making chips for most digital cameras, music players, hand-held gaming devices and phones. For many reasons, the ARM design is better suited to the needs of the phone. It consumes less power, requires less space and offers better performance per unit of energy consumed, a key measure for phone makers looking to boost functionality and battery life. But ARM's backers and partners cannot match the enormous research budgets and space-age manufacturing systems of Intel and AMD, meaning its chips have not made the same leaps forward in recent years.

In the coming year, both Intel and AMD will "shrink" their chips down to a new standard that involves components just 32 nanometres, or millionths of a metre, across. The chips this new process will produce will take laptop power into mobile devices, Paul Otellini, the chief executive at Intel, told The National this year. "They will meet the form factor requirements for future markets, for the hand-held devices of the future," Mr Otellini said. "You will get the full internet in your pocket. Think of something as fast as the fastest notebook you can buy today, as internet friendly as your notebook today, all in your pocket." Globalfoundries, the microchip -making joint venture that is majority-owned by Abu Dhabi's Advanced Technology Investment Company, is also planning to use the new 32 nanometre standard to enter the mobile market. "We're going to be targeting that pretty aggressively at the 32-nanometre node," says Jon Carvill, the head of communications at Globalfoundries. "We see big opportunities there in the wireless space, because some of the new materials and technologies being introduced at 32 nano are really optimal for low-power devices that need significant performance and multimedia capabilities." While Globalfoundries has only one customer, its joint-venture partner AMD, the company needs to expand to build the economies of scale needed to make computer chip making profitable. "We're engaged in discussions with a number of companies in the wireless space," Mr Carvill says. "There's nothing to announce right now but it's something we are having ongoing dialogue about." While more than 2.5 billion people own mobile phones, Intel estimates that 1.6 billion of them cannot be used for anything more than simple calling and text messaging. The company hopes to turn this huge market into passionate internet users and, in the process, reliable Intel customers. "What we want to do is bring a rich internet experience to a broad range of new users who have never experienced it before," says Anand Chandrasekher, the general manager of Intel's ultra mobility group. "There is no reason that those 1.6 billion users cannot experience the full internet in a pocketable device."