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August 19, 2010

New Intel Atoms, and how Oracle is helping Microsoft

So Intel has added two more processors to its ever growing family of Atom processor products with all its many branches and suggested applications.

The new chips are the single-core Atom D425 and the dual-core Atom D525 both of which run at 1.8GHz, representing a small step up from the existing 1.6GHz D410 and D510. Thermal Design Power remains at 10 and 13 watts, and the stated quantity prices of US$42 and US$63 is also the same as that of the earlier chips (which, however, enjoy "embedded" status). There is one notable difference: the two new chips support DDR3 SODIMM, and Intel is promoting them for home and small business network storage devices.

To put things in perspective, unlike the Atom N270 that made the netbook explosion possible and accounts for tens of millions sold, and unlike its N450 (and N455/N475) successor, the Atom "D" processors are the ones Intel targeted for "nettops," i.e. really inexpensive desktop PCs. From what I can tell, that strategy didn't pan out as there aren't too many desktop PCs that used the D410 or even the dual-core D510. Why? Perhaps desktops and notebooks are so inexpensive these days that consumers see no reason to get a machine with anything less than a "real" Intel chip (i.e. a Core 2 Duo or one of the new Core i3/i5/i7 chips). So one explanation for the new D425/D525 is that Intel is trying to salvage the Atom "D" by giving it DDR3 support, even if it's only for SODIMM, and targeting the chips at network storage systems, whatever exactly that is in real life.

A bit more commentary about the current Atom situation: there are now no fewer than ten versions of the Atom "Z" processor, ranging from the anemic 800MHz Z500 to the considerably more powerful 2.13GHz Z560. On the market side, the vast majority of Atom "Z" processor-based products we're seeing are using the 1.6GHz Z530, which, after all this time, still seems to be deployed pretty much interchangeably with the Atom N270 (there are products that offer both N270 and Z530 versions, and there are some which switched from one to the other and vice versa). In real life, I've never actually seen a product that uses the Z550 or Z560, which is odd as even the Z540 gives the one Z540 product we benchmarked (the Panasonic H1 medical market tablet) a small but noticeable performance edge over the competition).

But what about the new Atom "Moorestown" chips, a next iteration of the "Z" processors that should finally allow Intel to be competitive in the smartphone and such market? Well, apart from their announcement in May of 2010, we haven't heard another thing whereas ARM et al get all the publicity.

So it's hard to figure out what to make of Intel's Atom efforts to-date. On the one hand, there are the millions and millions of netbooks sold, but while everyone loved the low, low prices of netbooks, few were ever dazzled by netbook performance, especially in the graphics area. With the iPad showing what all can be done with a nominally much slower chip (the 1GHz A4), and netbooks getting ever closer to low-end notebooks, it's hard to see where that's headed.

Anyway, so what about Android? It's interesting to see what difference a week can make, and in this case the difference is the lawsuit Oracle threw at Google over Android. The suit is arcane and I am not even going to try to present details (it has to do with Oracle now owning SUN, which owns Java, and Android is supposedly using part of Java in a way Oracle does not approve of), but the mere fact that one 800-pound gorilla sues another 800-pound gorilla over a platform that up to that suit had almost unprecedented momentum is reason for concern. I mean, if you're a developer, you'd probably stop work and watch while Godzilla and Mothra duke it out. And while you're taking a breather, you may have time to cool off a bit over Android and realize that for now at least it's really little more than a smartphone OS, and that's it's already awfully fragmented. And also that businesses may find it difficult to trust things that come out of the current implementation of the Android App store.

This may all blow over and the two may come to an agreement, but let's realize that Oracle is in an entirely different class than SCO who a few years ago tried to claim exclusive ownership of all things UNIX and Linux. It's hard to see everyone all of a sudden stopping to make Android phones, but if this escalates, you'll see a lot of the companies that announced Android-based "iPad killers" delay their plans.

So who may be laughing all the way to the bank? Microsoft. Nothing could please Microsoft more than seeing Android derailed. Microsoft's own mobile plans are a mess at this point, at least as far as outsiders are concerned. There may at some point again be some sort of cohesive Microsoft mobile strategy and attractive product lineup, but there isn't one now. So the more time Microsoft has to communicate a clear plan and show some real products, the more likely it is to get back into the mobile game.

And HP has a dog in the race as well. HP is already the mightiest computer company in the world, and its immediate fate is not affected by what happens to Android. However, HP is also the company that fumbled away the iPAQ brand and today has essentially no presence in the mobile/smartphone market. But they bought Palm and all of Palm's cool IP, and so if there ever was a time to make a strong push for WebOS, it's now.

We'll see what happens, both with the Atoms and with Android. Who needs reality TV shows with all this stuff going on?!

Posted by conradb212 at 04:58 PM | Comments (0)

August 11, 2010

Android contemplations

Off the cuff, the way I see it is that Android has a better than even chance of becoming the OS of choice for tablets and other mobile devices. Android is really nothing more than another Linux distribution, but one backed and sort of run by Google. Microsoft, of course, will make the usual argument of leverage and security and integration into other Microsoft products, but the fact is that Linux itself can be at least as secure as anything Microsoft makes. Just look at the Mac OS which is also Unix-based, and Unix is the basis of Linux.

As is, Android is still very much a smartphone-oriented OS. But since it is just a shell on top of Linux (Google might object to that simplification), it can very quickly be adapted to almost any platform. For example, I simply downloaded a stable version of Android, created a bootable version on a USB key, and then booted some of the tablets and netbooks in our lab with it. The hardware never knew the difference and almost everything worked right off the bat, including WiFi. Adapting touch drivers and a few other things would be very simple.

The argument against Android is the same that people use against Linux: it's in the public domain. The program you need most may have been written by some guy from Leipzig or Buenos Aires, and that guy may have decided to ditch the code and move to Nepal. The reason why Microsoft has a stable platform is because they control it all, and the reason why iPhone/iPad apps are so very cool and polished is because you ONLY see what Apple examined and approved.

So Android's (and thus Google's) challenge will be to create the semblance of a strong, unified PRODUCT called Android, something people can rely on, and not something where a poorly written manual tells you that you first need to rebuild the kernel with the -fxuOie switches turned on for the app to run. That will be a challenge.

However, none other than General Dynamics Itronix has just released a handheld running Android. That would indicate that Android may be ready for prime time. And even if it isn't, and many questions remain, there's so much buzz and there's Google behind it. That alone will give anyone who offers Android or talks Android a strategic advantage.

Oh, and manufacturers offering both handhelds and tablets/notebooks would finally have the advantage of running the same OS both on hall their platforms, and not a mobile and a full version of an OS as has been the case with Windows and Windows CE/Mobile.

Posted by conradb212 at 06:15 PM | Comments (0)