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Intel deal to buy Wind River may pit it against Apple's iPhone team

An Intel move to buy mobile software experts Wind River Systems could do more than just give the chip maker a leg up in handheld devices; it could also spark more direct competition between Apple and Intel.

The mutually-agreed deal, worth about $884 million, should finalize in the summer and is directly related to fostering Intel's "mobile device capabilities" in the future.

What Wind River's role will be once it's there isn't detailed at this early point in time, but Intel is blunt in stating that most of its ambitions with the buyout involve portable home electronics, ranging from smartphones through to mobile Internet devices (MIDs) that straddle the line between notebooks and handhelds.

The expansion is poised to help Intel's ultra-mobile processor business and, particularly, the software that drives it. The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company already has a complete mobile operating system in Moblin Linux but will gain extra depth through Wind River's deeper knowledge of embedded operating systems. Wind River is best known for developing very small, efficient platforms like VxWorks and Wind River Linux that can operate in-car electronics or other devices that depend on very fast, real-time updating.

In any circumstance, the move has Intel moving in a different path but, potentially, towards the same goal as its computer processor partner Apple. The former already has a variant of its Atom processor in development, codenamed Moorestown, that would be small enough to be stuffed into MIDs and smartphones and would be aided by further refined software from Wind River. Apple, meanwhile, has already established OS X iPhone but has clearly signaled an intent to make its own mobile device processors, which could surface as early as next year.

And though the two are closely linked in the full-size computing realm, where Apple has regularly received processors first or else received special editions that don't exist elsewhere, tensions have already manifested themselves in the handheld arena. An Intel vice president publicly criticized Apple's choice of ARM for the iPhone's processor architecture late last year and said that the current and future cellphones capable of "full" Internet features as they wouldn't have Intel's x86 processors. Intel later backtracked from the statement but nonetheless made it evident that the company would go its own route whether or not Apple was ready to play along.