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Why Apple is betting on Light Peak with Intel: a love story

Intel's fatal attraction

Apple's desire to maintain an open relationship with Intel has been a source of frustration and jealously for the chip maker. Last fall, Intel's Shane Wall and Pankaj Kedia made dismissive remarks about the iPhone and its ARM CPU at the company's Intel Developer Forum.

"If you want to run full internet, you're going to have to run an Intel-based architecture," Wall told the gathering of engineers. He said the "iPhone struggles" when tasked with running "any sort of application that requires any horse power."

"The shortcomings of the iPhone are not because of Apple," Kedia added. "The shortcomings of the iPhone have come from ARM." Other handset vendors face the same problem Kedia said, adding that their smartphones are "not very smart" because "they use ARM."

The comments were met with an apologetic correction from Anand Chandrasekher, Intel's senior vice president and general manager of its ultra-mobility products group, who "acknowledged that Intel's low-power Atom processor does not yet match the battery life characteristics of the ARM processor in a phone form factor and that, while Intel does have plans on the books to get us to be competitive in the ultra low power domain - we are not there as yet. Secondly, Apple's iPhone offering is an extremely innovative product that enables new and exciting market opportunities. The statements made in Taiwan were inappropriate, and Intel representatives should not have been commenting on specific customer designs."

At this year's IDF event held just last week however, Intel CEO Paul Otellini spoke of the future of Atom-based mobile devices in the 2011 timeframe as if the 2007 iPhone hadn't ever existed, presenting a video portraying a futuristic device looking a lot like a simplified iPhone but using a future Atom chip and running Moblin, a Linux distro Intel began promoting in 2007.

This summer, Intel also paid a whopping $884 million to acquire Wind River Systems, a company which sells VxWorks (a proprietary real time embedded operating system that runs on both x86 and ARM) and its Wind River Linux distro (most famous for being the software that was supposed to power the aborted Palm Foleo).

Intel now owns three operating systems for Atom, but it's pretty clear that the company really lusts after Apple's iPhone OS on its Atom chips. Intel's efforts to popularize its Atom chips without Apple's help looks a bit like a shotgun attempt to the enter the mobile space any way possible so that someday Apple will have a reason to reconsider.

Intel follows Apple into the post-PC world

Unlike the generic PC market, smartphones and mobile devices aren't at all bound to Intel's x86 platform. The vast majority all run ARM, including Palm, Android, Symbian, Windows Mobile, BlackBerry OS and Apple's iPhone and iPods. Those devices also have no compelling reason to run on an x86 processor, unlike netbooks using the desktop version of Windows, which is tied to the x86 CPU platform.

In addition to predicting the iPhone years after Apple shipped it, Otellini also seemed to be repeating another idea that Steve Jobs presented back in 2007, when Apple Computer announced it was dropping the Computer to become just Apple, Inc. Otellini's version was worded as, "Intel is going to be using the continuum opportunity as an ability to move from personal computers as a company to personal computing." If Intel wants to stay on top of computing as it moves from the PC toward mobile devices, it has to get somebody significant interested in Atom.

Intel isn't bothering to court Windows Mobile, it knows it has little chance with Symbian and other typical smartphone operating systems, and it looks a lot like nobody else can sell a general purpose Internet device outside of Apple. Fortunately, Intel has something Apple is interested in, and that might possibly give Apple additional reasons to consider hawking Atom chips in the future.

On page 3 of 3: Apple, Intel and the ports business.