The past two weeks have been a busy – if not tumultuous – period for Intel. Driven by continued challenges in various semiconductor markets, culminating in weaker-than-desired earnings in the most recent quarter, Intel has set out to change their direction and refocus the company towards what they see as more lucrative, higher growth opportunity markets such as data center/server markets and cellular (5G) connectivity. To get there, the company is making changes to both their product lines and their head count, with the goal in the case of the latter to cut 11% of their workforce by the middle of next year.

Today’s big news out of Intel is along these lines, and with strategy and workforce news behind them, we have our first announcements on product changes that will come from Intel’s new strategy. In a report on Intel’s new strategy published by analyst Patrick Moorhead, Moorhead revealed that Intel would be radically changing their smartphone SoC plans, canceling their forthcoming Broxton and SoFIA products and in practice leaving the smartphone market for at least the time being.

Given the significance of this news we immediately reached out to Intel to get direct confirmation of the cancelation, and we can now confirm that Intel is indeed canceling both Broxton (smartphone and tablet) and SoFIA as part of their new strategy. This is arguably the biggest change in Intel’s mobile strategy since they first formed it last decade, representing a significant scaling back in their mobile SoC efforts. Intel’s struggles are well-published here, so this isn’t entirely unsurprising, but at the same time this comes relatively shortly before Broxton was set to launch. Otherwise as it relates to Atom itself, Intel's efforts with smaller die size and lower power cores have not ended, but there's clearly going to be a need to reevaluate where Atom fits into Intel's plans in the long run if it's not going to be in phones.

For the moment Intel’s announcement leaves some ambiguity in their larger mobile plans – where does the remaining Apollo Lake fit into the picture for tablets, if at all? – but for now we have a very clear picture of the smartphone SoC market, and how Intel will no longer be a part of it.

Intel’s full statement:

Intel is accelerating its transformation from a PC company to one that powers the cloud and billions of smart, connected computing devices. We will intensify our investments to fuel the virtuous cycle of growth in the data center, IoT, memory and FPGA businesses, and to drive more profitable mobile and PC businesses. Intel delivers a broad range of computing and connectivity technologies that are foundational to this strategy and that position us well to lead the end-to-end transition to 5G. Our connectivity strategy includes increased investment in wired and wireless communications technology for connecting all things, devices and people to the cloud, and to power the communications infrastructure behind it. We re-evaluated projects to better align to this strategy.

I can confirm that the changes included canceling the Broxton platform as well as SoFIA 3GX, SoFIA LTE and SoFIA LTE2 commercial platforms to enable us to move resources to products that deliver higher returns and advance our strategy. These changes are effective immediately.

Update 4/30: After publication, Intel sent along a second message clarifying that Broxton is canceled for both "phones and tablets," as the latter was not mentioned in their original message.

Smartphone SoCs: The Path so Far

Anyone following Intel’s exploits in the smartphone space over the last few years has been watching them with interest on product, timeliness and execution.

We’ve interviewed and appeared on video speaking with Aicha Evans, Intel’s current corporate Vice President of the Communication and Devices Group, whose large enthusiasm, energy and mantra of time to market has steered Intel over the past few years into the mobile scene, after bashfully missing an early entry. In that time, Intel has invested many billion dollars in both SoC and modem development to claw a market from the slew of ARM-based solutions in the wild. Aside from having a process node advantage during that time, Intel has had to redevelop its microarchitecture products and radio business into something that could be efficient, performant and price competitive, all the while maintaining the high margins Intel's overall business requires. Particularly in the radio business, the bread and butter of the CVP, Intel acquired and merged several companies to expand its radio portfolio, including the CDMA assets of VIA Telecom announced as recently as Q4 2015, as well as Infineon Wireless (modem/RF) and Silicon Hive (ISP).

As admitted by Intel, the first few generations were rough, either resting on their laurels or not having a complete solution. Earlier this decade Intel used a ‘contra-revenue’ strategy, investing into OEMs that would buy their chips, causing operating losses for the mobile division of $3.1 billion in 2013 and $4.2 billion in 2014 with a much lower revenue stream. Intel subsequently combined the financial reports of their mobile and consumer PC businesses into a new Client Computing Division, bringing all CPU/SoC development under a single roof but also obfuscating the investments and losses behind a high performing, high margin part of the company.


(Image Courtesy Tweakers.net)

Thus Intel’s big wins in the smartphone space have been rather limited: they haven't had a win in any particularly premium devices, and long term partners have been deploying mid-range platforms in geo-focused regions. Perhaps the biggest recipient has been ASUS, with the ever popular ZenFone 2 creating headlines when it was announced at $200 with a quad-core Intel Atom, LTE, 4GB of DRAM and a 5.5-inch 1080p display. Though not quite a premium product, the ZenFone 2 was very aggressively priced and earned a lot of attention for both ASUS and Intel over just how many higher-end features were packed into a relatively cheap phone.

Meanwhile, just under two years ago, in order to address the lower-end of the market and to more directly compete with aggressive and low-margin ARM SoC vendors, Intel announced the SoFIA program. SoFIA would see Intel partner with the Chinese SoC vendors Rockchip and Spreadtrum, working with them to design cost-competitive SoCs using Atom CPU cores and Intel modems, and then fab those SoCs at third party fabs. SoFIA was a very aggressive and unusual move for Intel that acknowledged that the company could not compete in the low-end SoC space in a traditional, high-margin Intel manner, and that as a result the company needed to try something different. The first phones based on the resulting Atom x3 SoCs launched earlier this year, so while SoFIA has made it to the market it looks like that presence will be short-lived.

Overall, Intel’s strategy of ‘Time To Market’ in order to generate revenue in a fast paced market makes sense - if you are late, then you are behind on performance, efficiency, and no-one will buy the chips. However, TTM has drawbacks if the chip comes without the features it needs, and the end result has seen Intel always play catch-up in one form or another, hoping that their strategy would encourage customers. Intel got serious about mobile, but it would appear it hasn't been enough.

Intel's Leaving the Trail: Broxton & SoFIA Cancelled

With Intel announcing the cancelation of their entire suite of smartphone SoCs, this has a significant impact on the company's overall strategy. The next generation of Intel's in-house mobile SoCs, Broxton, was lined up to use Intel’s newest generation 14nm Atom core, Goldmont. Goldmont has already been announced at IDF Shenzhen this year as part of the Apollo Lake netbook/low-cost PC platform, but we have been expecting it to arrive as part of a few handsets this year. Despite the fact that we assume Broxton should be in the final stages of silicon development and less than a few months out, the official word from Intel today is that the Broxton commercial platform has been cancelled for both smartphones and tablets, effective immediately. The resources working on the Broxton platform are being moved to areas within the company that offers better returns on investment and are more aligned with Intel’s connectivity (read: 5G) strategy.

Comparison of Intel's Atom SoC Platforms
  Node Release Year Smartphone Tablet Netbook
Notebook
Saltwell 32 nm 2011 Medfield
Clover Trail+
Clover Trail Cedar Trail
Silvermont 22 nm 2013 Merrifield
Moorefield
Bay Trail-T Bay Trail-M/D
Airmont 14 nm 2015 'Riverton' Cherry Trail-T Braswell
Goldmont 14 nm 2016 Broxton
(cancelled)
Willow Trail
(cancelled)
Apollo Lake
Apollo Lake

The other side of this news is the cancellation of the SoFIA 3GX, LTE and LTE2 commercial platforms as well. SoFIA as a platform had missed its original targets, was delayed (some analysts suggest up to a year), and in the end was developed through agreements made with RockChip and Spreadtrum to manufacture some of the SoFIA SoCs for those markets using a less expensive process node but also using the expertise of these two bulk SoC sales companies. We were expecting SoFIA with Intel’s 2nd generation LTE, as well as the next microarchitecture in SoFIA, to be announced this year. As of today’s email exchange with Intel, these programs are now cancelled, again effective immediately.  At this point details on how the arrangements with RockChip and Spreadtrum are unclear (Intel declined to comment).


One of Intel and Rockchip's current SoFIA SoCs

The Road Ahead for Intel

Intel’s announcements over the past week have included layoffs of 12000 staff, but also a clarification of Intel’s future strategy. Among those five focal points include the Cloud, the Client business, Memory and FPGAs, R&D through Moore’s Law, and 5G Connectivity. These five areas are all high margin, high grossing and high volume market segments. Sometimes an introspective look and an internal refocus on the core strengths is a good thing, depending on how your competitors are doing, but that means shedding parts of the business that don’t meet those expectations.

For the moment at least, Intel is out of the SoC side of the smartphone market. This will allow ARM architecture based SoCs to absorb the remaining market share they didn’t have already.

What's less clear at the moment is whether this will also impact the low-cost/non-premium tablet market, as embodied by products such as the Surface 3. In their updated statement, Intel has told us that Broxton is cancelled for both "phones and tablets." Our current understanding is that Broxton is the SoC at the heart of the Willow Trail platform – the successor to the widely used Cherry Trail-T – but at this time Intel has not explicitly confirmed whether this is in fact Willow Trail, or if Broxton's tablet variation represented another platform altogether. Though regardless of what happens with traditional tablets, we'll continue see Intel in more premium tablet-like devices such as 2-in-1s (e.g. Surface Pro) via Apollo Lake and the Core processor lineup, as Intel has previously identified convertable devices as a growth market for the company.

Update 5/02: In a newer statement, Intel has confirmed that Apollo Lake will be offered to tablet manufacturers. At this point it's not clear what the tradeoffs are for that versus Willow Trail, and whether Apollo Lake is suitable for all types of devices that the current-generation Cherry Trail has been used in. But this does mean we will see tablets using the Goldmont CPU core, while Intel Intel will flesh out the rest of their tablet SoCs with Core-based parts. Intel will also "continue to support" their tablet customers with Bay Trail, Cherry Trail, and SoFIA parts.

Also not discussed in greater detail is Intel's future plans for their overall Atom lineup. With Apollo Lake announced just earlier this month, it's clear that Intel's Atom efforts have not been cancelled entirely. We will still see the new 14nm Goldmont cores appear in low-cost PCs under Apollo Lake, most likely in several 11-to-13 inch high volume devices. However for the moment there is not an Atom core on Intel's roadmap beyond Goldmont.

Finally, despite all of this one key target for Intel will be the rest of the discrete modem market, which is currently Qualcomm’s domain, and the late 2015 acquisition of VIA Telecom’s CMDA assets will help. To put some perspective on this, two things: Intel recently hired Dr. Renduchintala, former Qualcomm VP of Mobile, to head up the client business, as well as Amir Faintuch, also formerly Qualcomm, to co-manage Intel’s Platform Engineering Group. Secondly, at Mobile World Congress 2016 in February, Aicha Evans said that she wanted a big contract in 2016, otherwise we might not see her in 2017.

Source: Intel, tip-off from Patrick Moorhead via Forbes

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  • plopke - Saturday, April 30, 2016 - link

    I just wanne know , is this the end of sub 300 dollar intel tablest and the end of like Asus Transformers?

    Because , urgh that would suck so much.
    Reply
  • haukionkannel - Saturday, April 30, 2016 - link

    Depends on what AMD can do with zen... Reply
  • Valantar - Saturday, April 30, 2016 - link

    All in all, I think Intel is (sort of) making a mistake here. A little context first, though.

    I believe what we're seeing is the simple, unavoidable fact that continuous growth (economic or otherwise) is a stupid myth perpetuated by capitalist ideologues lacking contact with reality. We've long since reached a point where the most popular computing devices are "good enough" for >90% of use cases. The cut-off for this has been gradually postponed as new and more practical/accessible form factors have been made possible (the transition from desktop pc -> laptop -> smartphone), but we're running out of "growth opportunities" there as well. The next logical step is smaller devices that can fulfill all the roles of the larger ones (as with Continuum and similar concepts), so that people have one device instead of two or three, but this will again lead to lower hardware sales, not higher. The same goes for performance - as people are more or less happy with smartphone performance now, they don't see the need to upgrade annually any longer. Crossover/all-in-one devices has little potential to mitigate this. To wit: the largest cell operator here in Norway has reported that two years ago, the average smartphone replacement rate was every 14 months. Now, it's every 27 months. In other words, those who bought new phones annually two years ago have since stopped upgrading.

    This is unavoidable - and it's a good thing. Electronics waste and overproduction in unregulated countries is wreaking havoc on our planet, doing far more damage than we know. Reduced production, consumption and replacement is good for everyone except bankers and investors in tech companies. On the other hand, this inevitable decline will lead to less profit in the tech sector, and thus less money to spend on R&D - which will slow things down even more. If the companies are interested in surviving at all, they need to shrink investor payouts and allocate a larger portion of profits to future R&D, to avoid a vicious spiral. Investors will be pissed, but that's their modus operandi - they'd rather have huge payouts one year and then see the company fail the next year than have a steady, lower income for years on end.

    Tech is inevitably trending towards a commodity economy, with small margins - sure, it's a necessity, but a necessity that to a huge degree is fulfilled by low-cost devices. Thus, cancelling low-cost platforms is a dumb move. However, I don't believe Atom is the right fit for this going forward. As it stands today, the mobile Atom platforms are more akin to the A53s than the A72s or Twisters of the world. It doesn't scale well enough to be future proof. And Core m is too power hungry, and throttles to stupidly low frequencies under sustained loads. Intel needs an in-between architecture, tailored for the 2-10W range, with a smaller die size than Core m. Apple has absolutely nailed this, demonstrated beautifully by them being the only SOC manufacturer able to produce something that didn't overheat on 20nm yet still performed on par with or above competitors. With A9(X), they showed how scalable this architecture was on a properly working process node. I'd love to see an A9X in a Surface Pro-like package (with the passive cooling solution used for the Core m3 version) and a more lenient power limit - that would be an interesting tablet.

    Oh, and Intel needs to implement some sort of per-core sleep function (like Android ARM SOCs have), otherwise they'll never be able to scale in the way future devices will require.
    Reply
  • KPOM - Saturday, April 30, 2016 - link

    Is there any reason why Intel just doesn't get an ARM license and leverage its superior fab process that way? They could potentially even win some fab business from Apple. Reply
  • saratoga4 - Saturday, April 30, 2016 - link

    Intel used to have an arm license, they sold it because they couldn't make any money selling super low cost arm parts.

    That would be even more true today when they'd have to compete with Samsung, Qualcomm, mediatek. Intel is in the business to make money, and they've learned the hard way that selling $200 desktop chips makes a lot more money then $10 parts for asus zenphones.
    Reply
  • peterfares - Saturday, April 30, 2016 - link

    They still have their ARM license, they just sold their XScale ARM division immediately before the smartphone boom. That wasn't very smart. Reply
  • mdriftmeyer - Saturday, April 30, 2016 - link

    Apple has Samsung/GloFo and TMSC to draw upon. They don't need Intel fabs. Reply
  • Reflex - Sunday, May 1, 2016 - link

    Intel's fabs are not general purpose like TSMC or GF. They are highly customized and produced in lockstep with new CPU designs. They can't simply fab something else at will. This has given them a tremendous edge over time, they consistently stay 1-2 process nodes ahead of the competition. The downside is that they do not have the flexibility to fab just anything they want. Reply
  • shelbystripes - Saturday, April 30, 2016 - link

    I don't get it. I feel like EVERYONE is missing the point here, and panicking over the "death of Atom" when no such thing is happening.

    Atom has evolved to include two very different lines: The "lite" model and the "full" model. The "lite" model was focused on smartphones, and included PowerVR or Mali graphics. This is a very specific flavor of Atom, and it focused on extreme power savings--and to get there, it used third-party GPUs. Intel killed its plans for Goldmont-based SoFIA chips, which killed Goldmont-based smartphone parts, but also killed off the future of Atoms with third-party graphics.

    However, Atom is NOT dead, and the "full" model is clearly alive. Intel has already clarified that it will continue shipping Atom x5 and x7 SOCs based on Cherry Trail. They also just announced Apollo Lake, the Goldmont-based Braswell replacement geared toward "netbooks" and "cloudbooks", as well as "2-in-1s" (which are basically premium tablets). Apollo Lake is designed to be modular and compact; Intel is heavily pitching how thin and light it is using soldered-down LPDDR RAM, eMMC, and Intel 802.11ac Wi-Fi. And again, no external GPU license, it's all Intel in-house.

    This looks like a strategy we've seen a lot from Intel lately: They struggle with a new architecture, so they only roll it out in one place first, and keep making the prior-gen chips for everything else. Maybe this means Goldmont has a problem, and that problem has to do with achieving power savings over Airmont. So what does Intel do? Intel rolls out Goldmont first in higher-power devices, while it continues to make Airmont-based Atom x5 and x7 CPUs for now. A future refresh could bring new "Apollo Lake-T" replacements for tablets down the road.

    So where did this leave Broxton? Broxton was a major, aggressive redesign. It was supposed to achieve power savings from Goldmont, and the utility of a modular "chassis" design that allowed easy integration of new features, including third-party IP. But what external IP would Intel want to integrate at this point? Intel has mature in-house 4G/LTE modems now, killing SoFIA puts an end to Intel's external graphics licensing (and Broxton was supposed to use Intel HD graphics regardless), so this looks like Intel abandoning third-party IP integration in its CPU/SoC development. The future for Intel will be aggressively developing its own graphics (which the Core team is already doing) and modems (see the aggressive 5G/connectivity push). Intel will want even tighter integration of these in-house components than a generalized modular design can deliver, so I don't see the point of Broxton anymore. Broxton isn't low-power enough to replace SoFIA, today it would be redundant to an Apollo Lake-T part, and tomorrow doesn't look like it's bringing third-party IP anymore.

    Intel didn't say it's just giving up the mobile market. Their full statement says the opposite; it says that they'll try "to drive more profitable mobile and PC businesses." All of this refocuses Intel on using its in-house GPUs and moving away from third-party licenses. So what is Intel really abandoning here? They're not abandoning the mobile market. They're abandoning PowerVR GPUs and third-party IP integration. They're also abandoning out-licensing to Rockchip and Spreadtrum, which means keeping their in-house IP in-house.

    So does Intel intend to just throw away SoFIA? There's a lingering question from the big 5G/connectivity push that Intel announced in February of this year. Alongside their 5G tease and some new 4G/LTE modems, they rolled out a brand-new Atom x3 part. This wasn't a Goldmont-based SoFIA part, and it's not identified anywhere as a "SoFIA" Part. The Atom x3-M7272 is a quad-core 64-bit Atom SoC with an integrated LTE/3G/2G modem for use in IoT, automotive, and embedded devices. It uses LPDDR2/LPDDR3 and the feature-set otherwise overlaps with the x3-C3445, so it was obviously intended to be based on the Airmont SoFIA LTE, the only SoFIA chips to be fabbed in-house at Intel. But the M7272 has no GPU; this isn't for infotainment, it's promoted for automotive connectivity. It was announced with a "long life availability & support program", so Intel clearly planned to keep making it for a very long time. It seems really odd that Intel would kill SoFIA to focus on IoT and connectivity solutions, but in the process, kill a key IoT solution it announced just two months ago. However, the M7272 isn't identified anywhere on Intel's website as a "SoFIA LTE" part, even though the C3405 and C3445 are.

    With the SoFIA 3G parts cancelled, it doesn't make much sense to launch just the C3405 and C3445 as an incomplete x3 product line. But the only thing truly unique about the x3, that isn't already supported by other Intel teams, was the third-party graphics. The rest of the SoC, including the CPU and integrated modem, are all current-gen Intel IP. It doesn't take much to just disable the GPU and crank out IoT Atoms as a fully supported, short-term solution.

    Given all that, here's my predictions for Intel's near future:

    1) Intel goes ahead and rolls out the M7272 "v1.0" using a SoFIA LTE chip with the GPU disabled. They're 98% there already, and they need it as their current-gen IoT solution.

    2) Reallocated personnel are used to fast-track a previously unannounced Atom core with an integrated LTE modem, IoT utility, and no third-party IP. This would be a die shrink of SoFIA LTE, except that it would replace the Mali GPU with a bare minimum number of Intel GPU EUs for applications that require video. Since this is all in-house IP, Intel already has experience building Airmont and Intel HD Graphics on smaller processes, and it would be fabbed internally, this should take far fewer resources than SoFIA is now.

    3) Intel announces "Apollo Lake-T" for tablets and its new in-house SoFIA replacement for IoT, embedded, and maybe even high-end smartphone devices.

    4) Once the SoFIA replacement is up and running, Intel quietly switches over to an M7272 "v2.0" that is a drop-in replacement for the M7272. Like v1.0, it's the low-end Atom chip with the GPU disabled, but this lets Intel stop making the v1.0 part. Intel can also launch new IoT/embedded parts based on this product, building it out into a larger product line as part of their IoT and connectivity platform.
    Reply
  • Burner73731125975 - Saturday, April 30, 2016 - link

    What constitutes the IoT? I hear a lot of buzz about it, but I've yet to see anything outside of hobbyist boards, Nest thermostats, and the like. Smart appliances still seem very niche and linited as far as I can tell. What am I missing? What are the big IoT applications right now? Reply

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