Innovation was at the center of Intel’s Developer Forum in Shenzhen last week. The conference moved from Beijing to Shenzhen in order to be closer to one of the countries largest shipping and manufacturer regions. This is a region traditionally known for Shanzai or Copy Cat devices. However, consumers in China are starting to shun clones in favor of local brands. With Innovation entering into the discourse of many Chinese companies, is Intel embracing the new or old China with the Atom X3 line of mobile processors?
Back in May of 2014 Intel announced a partnership with Rockchip who is a fabless semiconductor manufacturer specializing in ARM SoCs. The plan was for Intel to leverage Rockchip to bring a low cost Intel branded SoC to tablets. Sounds great, sub $150 tablets that offer connectivity, but the connection that I didn’t make until IDF was what this could mean for Intel’s brand in mobile.
Debuting at IDF was the Rockchip Master Reference Design (MRD) based on the Atom X3 processor. If you’re a fan of code names, it is referred to as the Sofia 3G-R, the R indicating that it’s from the strategic alliance.
Did Intel Pick the Wrong Dance Partner?
Intel isn’t talking about their partnership with Rockchip, the company is currently in ‘silent mode’, but IDF 2015 gave us a glimpse of what is coming. Hands on with Intel’s Reference Designs were…well it wasn’t good and Rockchip’s MRD wasn’t much better. The plastic looked cheaper than it felt and the Android 5.0 running on the tablet didn’t perform very well at all. But, I was told they were builds that weren’t even ready to give to the ODMs.
Hands on with these Reference Designs connected some dots for me that I had somehow missed. In all the years I have been covering technology I have never seen a Rockchip product that I thought was of good quality. Rockchip has been on my radar for sometime and at least once a year I’ll hear they’ve released a processor that benchmarks well. Inevitably, when I get those products in my hand I am disappointed by how they run, they benchmark great, but the user experience sucks. It comes down to software, how optimized is the software to the hardware? It’s a problem everyone faces. The LG G Flex 2 running the Snapdragon 810 left reviewers wondering if Qualcomm’s latest processor was a dud. When the HTC One M9 came out a few weeks later and ran like butter, heavy praise went to HTC for taking the time to customize the UI.
The work your partners do on your product is what consumers see, user experience is everything. Your average Joe doesn’t care what is inside, but if the bulk of your products come in a cheaply made case and doesn’t offer a smooth UI experience, your brand will suffer.
Intel did offer some interesting facts about the quality of the products that are ending up in the market. They claim their partners are seeing 20% less RMA’s or returns of products which is a testament to their build quality. However, I can’t help but wonder what this number is going to look like after Rockchip based products enter into the mix.
Where is Intel in Mobile?
Last year 46M Intel based tablets were shipped which is 6M more than projected. Regardless of my hesitancies around the quality of future hardware, the strategic partnership with Rockship is starting to bear fruit with Sofia 3G-R. The platform offers a 3G module integrated with the chip and it fills a hole in Intel’s tablet line up holding down the value or entry level market. The Sofia 3G-R MRDs are shipping to partners and Intel’s LTE solution for the Atom X3 is globally certified which makes what Intel is selling very competitive. Last year MRDs based on the Atom X3 were responsible for 40% of the 46M tablets that hit the streets. So it’s a program that appears to be working.
Last year, Intel launched a Turnkey program for manufacturing devices, a production recipe book of sorts. Reference Designs are nothing new, in fact if you don’t have one, the chances of ODMs building on your platform aren’t as good. They allow ODMs to focus on innovating on the platform rather than just building the platform. Or that’s one way to look at it. The other is that it allows budget manufacturers that don’t care about quality to crank out a poorly produced product with very little R&D investment.
How is Intel Inspiring Innovation?
Let’s give Intel the benefit of the doubt right now. I saw really early stage products that may not be representative of what is to come. I asked Kirk Skaugen, Vice President General Manager, Client Computing Group what work Intel was doing to help inspire innovation? His response was around next generation Atom devices that will enable a ‘No Wires’ Future which means WiDi and Wireless Charging.
Showing a Real Sense Smartphone prototype shows movement in the right direction. Real Sense is pushing the boundaries of human machine interaction and that Intel showed a prototype in Shenzhen is inspirational. Real Sense has two types of camera’s a depth sensing camera which we’re seeing on tablets and one for laptops or desktops that allow for things like pupil tracking. Defining the next set of interactions that we’re going to have with our devices is forward thinking and it’s an area that is still wide open.
ASUS and Lenovo – Intel’s Real Innovation Channels
ASUS is well known for coming out with Intel based smartphones, and the Zenfone line up is budget, offers great performance with a very decent camera for a mid range device. Above, is the ASUS Zoom which puts a mirrorless digital camera lens into a Smartphone. Samsung couldn’t do it, but ASUS is about to pull it off. Intel has picked the companies on the market that to me are Innovating their product lines. ASUS has won the Mobile Geeks most Innovative Company award for 4 years in a row.
During the Day 2 Keynote Lenovo was brought up on 3 separate occasions. You may not know it but Lenovo is the disruptive bull in the china shop. Lenovo smartphone don’t have much street cred globally but they are number 1 in China and only do 20% of their volumes outside of their home market. Lenovo owns their own Smartphone and Tablet manufacturing facilities and they do all their own R&D. On a recent trip to Wuhan in China I checked out both. Never underestimate the innovation possible when you own the entire stack, most companies went fabless, Lenovo didn’t make that mistake.
It may be ok for Intel ship volumes of Rockchip devices as long as they have a line of rockstar products that show legitimate innovation in their price point.
It’s a Slippery Slope
Is Intel about to play catch up by flooding the ecosystem with cheaply made tablets to justify numbers? It’s too soon to tell, but the move could cost them their reputation. It’s taken Intel a long time to get into the mobile game and if your product feels cheap in hand and have a glitchy UI (which has been the go to move for Rockchip based products) no one will buy them.
A trend emerging from China is building good quality products at killer price points. We’re seeing brands like Honor, OnePlus, Xiaomi and Meizu come out with devices that put their Korean competitors to shame at both the high end and midrange.
Maybe the only place there was room for Intel to enter in the mobile space and gain volumes was at the very low end. Regardless, China is moving from the Copy Cat stage in their development to Innovation for China and will eventually move towards Innovating on a global level. Chinese companies are no longer happy with good enough products at cheap prices, value and innovation are now apart of the discourse.
All of this glass half full talk about China can easy be struck down with the reality that there are a lot of companies grabbing that low hanging fruit. When you add in ARMs race to the bottom the examples are virtually endless and Rockchips partners can be found taking lead.
If you keep your gaze fixed on ASUS and Lenovo, Intel is indeed embracing the New China. But the Shanzai style devices that Rockchips partners are well known for are likely to leave anyone concerned with User Experience cringing.
One step forward, two steps back? It’s too soon to tell.