clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Intel spent more than $10 billion to catch up in mobile. Then it gave up.

The chipmaker missed the smartphone and tablet markets but thought it could catch up if it just spent enough money. Last week it finally raised a white flag.

Asa Mathat

After missing the early days of the smartphone revolution, Intel spent in excess of $10 billion over the last three years in an effort to get a foothold in mobile devices.

Now, having gained little ground in phones and with the tablet market shrinking, Intel is essentially throwing in the towel. The company quietly confirmed last week that it has axed several chips from its roadmap, including all of the smartphone processors in its current plans.

It’s a stunning admission of failure that saw the company throw good money after bad in its bid to make up for lost ground.

“Suffice it to say, they likely lost well over $10 billion betting on mobile chips that never really got them anywhere,” said Jackdaw Research analyst Jan Dawson.

Calculating the exact amount of its losses is tricky, given that the company only reported the mobile business separately for two years before folding it back into another unit. In just that time, the mobile business posted a whopping $7.4 billion in operating losses. Much of that came as Intel agreed to pay device makers that used its chips to account for the fact that choosing Intel added other costs.

The hope was those companies would form a ready base of customers once Intel was ready with more competitive and cost-effective chips run just a year or two. Without such payments, Intel felt it would have had to wait several more years to regain a position in mobile chips.

Intel’s chips, though, ended up being neither timely nor competitive. And most agree that Intel was right to reverse course, even though it would have been better to have never gone down this road in the first place.

 By the middle of 2014, Intel was losing more than a billion dollars per quarter on its mobile effort.
By the middle of 2014, Intel was losing more than a billion dollars per quarter on its mobile effort.
Jackdaw Research

Intel’s mobile failure is not only measured in dollars.

The chip giant is in the process of cutting its workforce by more than 12,000, with those involved in mobile chips among those expected to be hit hard. Intel is just now starting to notify workers and declined to go into details on the parts of the company that will be most impacted.

And, of course, there is the opportunity cost of where Intel could have invested all those billions had it not been hellbent on trying to reclaim lost ground in mobile.

The company did reach its target of shipping 40 million tablets in 2014, but that was one of the few mobile goals it reached. The tablet market stalled soon after and Intel failed to grab any significant chunk of the far larger smartphone market. Taiwan’s Asus had been the company’s biggest phone backer, but even it had started to pull back this year, shifting nearly all its models to other companies’ processors.

Intel isn’t out of the mobile business entirely. Although it has canceled several families of chips designed to serve as the main processor for phones and tablets, the company is still pushing hard to gain share in the market for modem chips, a secondary but nonetheless important part of phones. Many believe it has even landed some share of the next iPhone, stealing business away from rival Qualcomm. Intel also says it is investing in next-generation 5G technology in hopes the shift to a new approach will give it another bite of the mobile apple.

And it’s not a totally unreasonable notion, says tech industry analyst Patrick Moorhead. “Over the past few years, the industry has consolidated and only Qualcomm, Huawei, Samsung and Intel have the resources to make it to a full 5G wireless transition,” Moorhead said.

With the roadmap changes, Intel will still be making chips for tablets, but more the big Windows 2-in-1 tablets designed to compete in the PC market than the low-end Android models. And any ambitions of powering smartphones will have to wait at least for 5G, meaning not until sometime in the next decade.

So the question is, what now for a PC giant that finds itself in a largely post-PC world?

“I think this is a sign of more realistic thinking at Intel and putting their investments where they’re more likely to pay off,” Dawson said. “Their main focus now appears to be on maintaining whatever they can in the legacy PC business and then trying to grow through data centers and Internet of Things applications. Data centers have been really good for them over the last few years, but IoT is still really small.”

Plus, Internet of Things devices resemble the mobile market more than they do the PC market, so it’s not clear that Intel will have any more luck in that market.

In addition to all the money it spent to win business for its tablet chips, Intel invested a fortune to make sure that Android worked well on its processors and to make life easier for device makers that went with its chips. Intel executives liked to boast that Intel had the largest Android software team outside of Google.

It’s unclear what will become of that effort, though Intel still wants to make sure its chips are well suited for Chrome OS-based devices, one of the few bright spots in an otherwise bleak PC market.

As for another go at mobile, Intel hopes that will come with 5G but isn’t going into much detail. It said the move to cancel the current slate of chips will allow it to invest for the (much) longer term.

“We are committed to long-term leadership and improved profitability of our mobile business,” Intel said in a statement.

This article originally appeared on