Lost in the commotion over the iPhone 5 news yesterday, Intel announced during the first day of its yearly developer conference that it has completed porting the latest version of Android in 4.1 Jelly Bean from its ARM-based underpinnings to the x86 chip platform, which would allow the chipmaker to develop chipsets and related hardware around the port of the operating system.
Intel’s Android Smartphone Play
While Intel previously relied on MeeGo for the majority of its mobile Linux work, the chipmaker also took small steps to diversify its portfolio with Google’s operating system, first by developing a superset of Android used in the first generation Google TV platform and then following up with a custom build of Android Gingerbread proper which was developed for the San Diego smartphone currently sold by pan-European carrier Orange in the UK and sold in India as the XOLO 900. The most recent release of the AZ210 smartphone (Intel’s codename for the phone) was in Russia, which launched the phone 21 days ago, with the phone being manufactured by Intel partner Gigabyte.
The App Catch 22: ARM Apps and x86
In practice, Intel has intentionally limited availability of its smartphone platform on a commercial level as it does not want to fully commit to a US launch until several still longstanding issues are resolved regarding Android apps on x86, namely, the majority of them not working properly without a complete rebuild.
What remains to be seen with the Jelly Bean port is whether Intel will continue with its mobile hardware experiment and offer the build as a future update for its currently available smartphone hardware, or whether the build will be used internally for further Medfield platform development, with Intel refusing to comment on any sort of timeline for a rollout. Currently, Intel is leaving rollout details to the specific carriers for the AZ210 but are admitting to select executives running the new build on their devices.
Intel’s Android Plans: Get More Apps Working
Currently, Intel’s biggest plans regarding Android still center on Medfield platform development and finding an easier way to port Android apps without needing to build completely new apps, as the apps found on Google Play and competing app stores are all built around the requirements of ARM hardware and have proven more difficult to port to the x86 platform than expected. While many apps are available for use on the San Diego smartphone, the vast majority will not work without issues, or will simply not work at all.
The US 3G Conundrum for the Curious
What is also notable about the AZ210 is the fact that it supports AT&T 3G out of the box, as the phone features quad-band 3G support, which makes it viable for use in the US, though the high price of the phone will scare many off, as the phone can only be purchased through specialized importers for around the same price as an unlocked 64GB iPhone 4S after shipping and any required taxes are taken into account. The UK version has its UMTS 1900 band locked out unless roaming internationally and otherwise requires an unlock in order to enable the band support.
Growing Support for Medfield? Merrifield on 14nm?
With Intel porting Android Jelly Bean to x86, this may signal an increased commitment by the chipmaker to continue its push into mobile after years of stillborn initiatives and false starts, while its AZ210 smartphone serves as its Trojan horse with each launch, should Intel decide to continue supporting the smartphone commercially. Motorola is expected to announce its own Intel-based Android smartphone using an updated Intel chipset based on Medfield featuring a dual-core chip among other upgraded features from the AZ210 next week in a press event being held in London.
Future plans for Intel’s mobile initiative include a series of die shrinks for its mobile chips, as the current Medfield-based smartphones are noted for their higher than average power consumption compared to ARM processors. Intel has stated plans to release its successor platform to Medfield in Merrifield for smartphones in the future.
The new chipset will use a new 22-nm process, be faster and more power efficient than current Medfield processors, which are made using the 32-nm process used in current x86 CPU manufacturing and are slated for availability next year. Intel has also stated plans to release chips made using the even smaller 14-nm process by 2014, but has yet to offer any additional details beyond preliminary confirmation of the smaller manufacturing process for mobile processors.