Does Intel Know What It Wants From Atom?

Yesterday afternoon, Intel’s CEO Paul Otellini seemed a little hazy on the future home for Intel’s Atom processor during the chip maker’s quarterly earnings call — a fact I don’t find all that surprising since the netbooks or mobile Internet devices the chips are designed for exist only in a marketer’s imagination and failed product implementations.

Otellini was excited about Atom, calling demand for the chip” robust,” but analysts pressed Otellini about Atom’s end market and whether the chip would cannibalize Intel’s low-end Celeron processor. The Celeron ranges from speeds of 2.13 GHz to 3.6 GHz, and is faster than Atom’s 1.8 GHz or 1.6 GHz. Otellini’s responses were less than a ringing endorsement of the chip. “[Atom] is less than a third of the performance of our Centrino (high-end mobile processor),” said Otellini. “You’re dealing with something that most of us wouldn’t use.”

Wait a second. Just weeks ago before the Computex trade show in June, Otellini told the Financial Times he anticipated a $40 billion market opportunity for Atom chips over the next few years. If most of us aren’t using these low-end chips, then who is? Otellini envisions the Atom chip for small computers in emerging markets that happen to have IP-based voice, but in late 2009 Intel will launch an Atom chip for smartphones. In emerging countries, a lot of computing is already carried out on cell phones, begging the question of where Intel’s demand for Atom is coming from. Will those products actually succeed?

As for cannibalization, Otellini said, “We do not see [Atom] replacing Celeron. If you look at the netbook products being built around Atom, they’re all lower-priced, lower features, smaller screen size notebooks aimed at first-time buyers or the second, third or fourth machine in a household. We don’t see any cannibalization.”

So Atom chips are designed for slow web access on cheap, portable machines that will act as the backup computer in my home. Wait, I have one of those already. It’s called a smartphone and plenty of companies already make processors for that market.