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Otellini confirms Intel-powered x86 phones

Intel chief Paul Otellini continued to pile the pressure on mobile market leader ARM with an announcement at the Mobile World Congress event that Intel-powered smartphones will appear before the end of the year.

Taking to the stage in Barcelona, Otellini confirmed that smartphones featuring x86 architecture processors - as Intel specialises in - will appear 'this year,' although he refused to be pushed on a more specific date.

"We can't pre-announce our customers," Otellini offered as explanation for his reticence. "I think it's going to be pretty exciting," he continued in response to prodding from the crowd - an understatement if ever there was one.

Intel has been clear in its intentions to target the portable market, recently announcing its Medfield low-power Atom range of processors designed for smartphones and tablets. The company has also poured money into mobile software platforms, developing the MeeGo platform in conjunction with Nokia and porting Google's popular Android platform from its original ARM architecture to the Atom-friendly x86.

The company will have its work cut out taking on the mighty British chip design firm ARM and its multitudinous licensees. Even with the work put into the low-power Medfield line, Atom chips will likely retain the power edge for some time to come.

Otellini appeared to make reference to the traditionally high power draw of x86 chips compared to ARM-based equivalents during his speech, telling investors to think about ploughing money into battery technology. "We can't keep using lithium ion," Otellini explained. "[Future batteries will] be silicon-based, higher-capacity, longer-life. Whoever invents that is going to make a fortune."

A more pressing concern than high power draw is performance. Recent announcements from Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, and most recently Nvidia suggest that by the end of the year ARM-based devices with quad-core processors will be appearing - making the dual-core Medfield design look distinctly out of date.

The final hurdle Intel will have to cross is one that has traditionally been on its side: legacy applications. Intel, and the company's x86 architecture, has long ruled the PC and server roost, preventing competing architectures such as PowerPC and MIPS from gaining much traction. In the mobile market, this position is reversed: the ARM architecture is the overwhelmingly dominant platform, and for Intel's Medfield to succeed it needs to convince developers to port their software to a minority platform - not something the chip giant is used to doing.

With all that said, if any company has the resources to challenge ARM's dominance in the mobile marketplace it's Intel. With its recent push towards system-on-chip designs, it's more than capable of producing equivalent products - but only time will tell if its traditional sales technique of selling finished chips, rather than licensing chip designs, wins out in a market the company hasn't had a great deal of success with in the past.