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Will Intel’s Project Athena resurrect the cellular laptop?

The story of the mobile device industry has been one of a war between Qualcomm and Intel to power the next generation of connected consumer products. After a decade of rivalry and R&D, little has really changed.

Intel tried, several times, to take a major position in smartphone chips but abandoned its processor and system-on-chip efforts for the final time in mid-2016. A few weeks ago, it also bailed on the 5G modem business when Apple made peace with Qualcomm, and looks likely to exit mobile basebands altogether, despite being a top three player courtesy of its acquisition of Infineon Wireless in 2011.

So Qualcomm, despite its many challenges, remains supreme in smartphone SoC and modem products, as Apple acknowledged when it failed to find a viable alternative to the San Diego firm for its 5G iPhone. However, Qualcomm has had its own setbacks, and despite serial attempts, has never taken a strong position in the PC segment.

That appeared to matter far less than Intel’s failure in smartphones, because PCs were in decline in the early years of this decade, while handsets were booming. Now, though the picture its less clear. The smartphone market’s growth has disappeared and prices are falling, while the PC stubbornly refuses to die, being reborn in various form factors including convertibles and tablet hybrids, Chromebooks running the Google Linux-based operating system, Intel’s Ultrabook platform and Apple’s MacBook family.

Qualcomm’s play for this ‘post-PC’ market was supposed to be the tablet, but after a short day in the sun, largely driven by the iPad, that category has stagnated and the higher margins and growth still rest with the devices that have their roots in the traditional PC market – increasingly slim, touchscreen-enabled and cloud-connected models from the likes of Lenovo, Dell and Acer.

The trouble for Qualcomm is that, despite promises of a cellular laptop being made for years, that has never really taken off. The ubiquity and high performance of WiFi, and the resistance to additional monthly MNO charges, have made 4G integration unnecessary in most laptops and hybrids, and this is even more the case with the rise of smartphone tethering. Even most pure tablets run on WiFi only to save cost for the end user.

So will 5G make any difference, and give Intel another chance to dominate a cellular device (though not a phone), or Qualcomm another chance to drive its mobile technology into a PC form factor?

It is notable that Project Athena, Intel’s latest bid to define the next generation post-PC platform does stress integrated 5G, along with other buzz technologies like AI (artificial intelligence). In an era when OEMs are trying to drive cost down as much as possible, reference designs from chip firms like Intel are increasingly powerful, since they reduce the amount of custom development a vendor has to do, reducing cost and time to market. That also increases the influence the chip provider has over the prevailing form factor and design, and may give Intel and Qualcomm better chances to build an ecosystem around their favored approach to the ‘5G post-PC’.

Intel has better form here, having built its PC success around creating just such ecosystems, and establishing hard-to-break dependencies for the manufacturers on platforms like Centrino (for WiFi), Intel Inside (for branding) and Ultrabook. Now it has Project Athena, which was unveiled early this year and sets out the requirements for a future laptop design, for Intel’s OEM partners.

The specifics remain shadowy so far but the brief is that Athena is “designed to enable new experiences and capitalize on next generation technologies, including 5G and artificial intelligence,” said Intel. It did say that 5G and AI are top of its list of new capabilities for its designs, but it is also focusing on fast reboot, all-day battery life,

adjustable form factors, and better raw performance.

So far, it has support from most of the usual suspects – Acer, Asus, Dell, Google, HP, Huawei, Innolux, Lenovo, Samsung, Sharp and Microsoft. The reference designs will apply to Windows and Chrome laptops and devices are expected later this year, though whether these will include 5G options as well as WiFi will, presumably, depend on market demand.

Recently, Intel also announced the ‘Project Athena Open Labs’ program, which will set up labs in “key ecosystem hubs” in Taipei, Shanghai and Folsom, California “to support performance and low power optimization of vendor components for laptops”. Those components include audio, display, embedded controllers, haptics, SSDs and wireless.

Intel says the labs represent an “expanded level of integration with the PC ecosystem” which will “accelerate the development of advanced laptop designs and capabilities by

adding greater efficiency to the component selection process for OEMs, and by enabling a continuous cycle of tuning and testing based on real workloads and usage models.”

This would also give the company a significant level of control over how the next generation laptop will look and behave, as well as tying OEMs to certain standards of performance and system tuning.

“Every component within a laptop affects the user experience, from power consumption to responsiveness and beyond,” says Intel. “Enabling component vendor assessment, tuning and compliance at the Open Labs will help drive consistency in delivering the best technologies and early alignment and enablement at the component level sets a strong foundation for OEM design readiness and implementation to help ensure systems meet Project Athena experience targets.”

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