'Atom' set to power Intel's MID dreams

A speech interface could be used to create connections between two mobiles. (SUPPLIED)

Chip maker Intel – which is already known for its jarring jingle – has a new catchphrase: "Carry Small, Live Large". It reflects the US firm's belief that the web will become increasingly mobile, with people using small but smart mini-computers – rather than their phones – to access a wide range of internet services on the go.

Intel hopes that its new "Atom" chips, announced in early March, will form the processing power behind this revolution in internet use. But the question is, as any user of Apple's iPhone may contend: has the revolution already happened?

Several research projects centred on what Intel terms Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs) were excitedly revealed at the company's "research day" in Silicon Valley earlier this week.

"We've had a view for a long time the mobile could be more than it is today," said Kevin Kahn, director of Intel's Communications Technology Lab. "Mobile is [currently] more driven by what the devices can do, rather than by what people want."

In the future, existing technology could be used in a much more intelligent way. "We've got cameras on almost every device, but all we seem to use them for is taking bad snapshots," said Kahn. "[The new technology does not] lack the pieces, it's a matter of putting them together in an intelligent way."

For example, a MID's camera may be linked to GPS and the internet functions. When you point the camera at a landmark – the Monument to the People's Heroes in China, for example – the device will automatically recognise it and display relevant information from the internet.

The only piece of technology missing here is object recognition. However, Intel is working on something that can do just that. Showcased in Silicon Valley last week, the firm's "Real-time visual mobile object recognition" technology managed to recognise several items placed in front of a camera: including a tape holder, and a "day-old pizza".

This could "be run on a cellphone in a year or two", said one of the researchers at the event.

In another example given by Intel, a MID may be used by a nurse in a hospital. The device – linked by GPS – would automatically sense which room the nurse is in, and bring up the relevant patient's details.

MIDs will "talk" to other devices in the proximity, and will be ultra-connective. For example, if there is a giant flatscreen display close to you, you will be able to watch a YouTube clip on that, rather than using the smaller MID display.

The devices could even link information about your whereabouts with your diary and Facebook account. So, if you had some free time after a meeting in your home city, and an old friend happened to be passing by, your MID could recognise this and let you know.

Just like with Facebook, the details that the device does and doesn't share will be determined by you.

To the mild frustration of some of the Intel researchers at its research day, the firm says it currently has no plans to produce its own MID device, so many of the findings presented are just examples of what could be done by other manufacturers. Part of the purpose of the research day, as Kevin Kahn put it, was to create "an environment in the industry" that favours MIDs, and Intel chips.

Intel's primary interest in this is to sell low-power mobile microprocessors, which – as a market that it abandoned two years ago – will be a major challenge. In June 2006, Intel sold its Xscale processor business to the Marvell Technology Group for an estimated $600 million (Dh2.2 billion). Xscale processors were largely designed for mobile devices, and so the move appeared to be a confirmation that Intel planned to abandon the mobile processor market.

However, the launch of the Atom chip marks the company's re-entry into a market currently dominated by designs licensed from companies such as ARM – which has sold more than 10 billion chips to more than 200 licencees – and Qualcomm.

So, has Intel "missed the boat"? It certainly prevaricated on the development of such technology, as was tacitly acknowledged by Intel's chief technology officer Justin Rattner at the company's 'research day'. Rattner said Intel first considered a low-power processor almost a decade ago, but the idea was not "received enthusiastically" by senior staff, stalling development of what – eventually – became the Atom chip.

Another question is whether MIDs are what people want. In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Intel CEO Paul Otellini said, "it's easier to add voice to a small computer than vice-versa" – suggesting mobile phones should move closer to computers, rather than the other way around.

This attracted criticism from a commentator on financial website The Motley Fool, who wrote, "if Intel can't keep a clear distinction between mobile computing and mobile phones, it will continue to flounder in space". Competition from smartphones – which could comprise much of the technology that Intel is so excited about in its Mobile Internet Devices – is likely to be fierce. And it will decide whether the "Carry Small, Live Large" concept sees the light of day – or whether it remains little more than a catchphrase.

Mobile internet devices

Intel's vision of the Mobile Internet Device – which is sometimes called an Ultra Mobile PC by other companies – is of a powerful machine running Linux, rather than Microsoft Windows, and which will be hyper-connectable with devices around it. As one Intel researcher put it, MIDs will be forever looking "to recognise other devices above its capability", embracing "device divergence" by borrowing capabilities of nearby machines. As its name suggests, its focus will be on a "true" web experience similar to that of a desktop machine. Many will include features such as a "tilt" sensor. Intel has already signed agreements to include its Atom with many manufacturers.

Samsung's Q1, for example, features fully functional PC power, instant multimedia, car navigation and the latest wireless technologies, all displayed on a seven-inch touch screen. And at under 800g, it is billed to be more portable than most laptops. Another MID is the Mini-Note, China's first Ultra Mobile PC. Developer Founder is pursuing frequent travellers, students, and fashion conscious females by delivering a "cool stylish design". On the business side, Founder is targeting automotive, healthcare, and banking.