Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) infamously tried and failed to become a major player in the market for both smartphone and tablet applications processors after spending billions on product development as well as on contra-revenue payments to help shoehorn expensive platforms into low-cost devices.
At the heart of Intel's mobile applications processor strategy were its low-power Atom processor cores. Intel's Atom cores can run the same software that its higher-end Core processors can, but they are fundamentally designed for lower performance, lower power consumption, and lower cost than their Core counterparts.
Now, even though Atom-based products didn't cut it in the world of mobile applications processors, Atom technology continues to power products that ultimately generate substantial revenue for the company.
Here are three areas where Intel leverages Atom.
1. Cable gateway chips
Although Intel doesn't talk about it too much, it is one of the leading vendors of chips that power cable modems (also referred to as cable gateways).
Intel entered this market with its 2010 acquisition of Texas Instruments ' (NASDAQ: TXN) cable modem business.
At the time, the company said that Texas Instruments' cable modem business "enhances Intel's focus on the cable industry and related consumer electronics (CE) market segments, where the company's expertise in building advanced system-on-chip (SoC) products, based on Intel Atom processors, will be applied."
This was certainly one of Intel's better acquisitions, as it quickly delivered on this promise.
Texas Instruments' Puma 5 series of cable gateway chips were powered by ARM processors, according to PC World, but the follow-on to the Puma 5, known as the Puma 6, used Intel Atom processor cores.
Intel's latest Puma chip, known as the Puma 7, also uses Atom cores, and I would expect all future Puma chips from Intel to utilize future Atom processor cores.
2. Personal computers
Intel has been getting increasingly aggressive about segmenting its personal computer processor lineups in a bid to maximize profitability.
In the past, Intel would take high-end Core processors and significantly defeature them to go after the low-cost portion of the personal computer market. This strategy wasn't great, as it led to subpar products with relatively high cost structures (both in terms of the chips as well as the surrounding platform components).
Over the last half-decade or so, Intel has been more aggressive about building cost-optimized chips for the low-end portion of the personal computer market, leveraging its Atom processor technology to do so.
The Atom processors tend to have a higher level of integration than the higher-end Core processors, and the Atom processors themselves tend to be much smaller (and thus much cheaper) to build than their Core counterparts.
The use of the Atom processor cores (as well as intelligent use of Intel's other intellectual properties) has allowed Intel to build products for the low-cost personal computer market that not only have much better cost structures than the defeatured Core chips of the past (leading to better margins for Intel), but the products are genuinely better.
Although Intel's mix of products continues to shift away from the low end of its product stack and toward its Core based processors, the Atom-based Celeron and Pentium chips for the personal computer market still generate substantial revenue and gross profit dollars for the chipmaker.
3. Data center
Although Intel's big moneymakers in the data center are its Core-based Xeon processors, the company also builds products for the data center that incorporate its Atom processor cores.
These Atom-based parts tend to go into applications such as networking and storage within the data center. Intel's high-performance Xeon processors power such applications, too, but for applications that don't require the kind of horsepower than the Xeon processors can deliver, the Atom-based parts can be more appropriate.
Intel doesn't disclose what portion of its data center group (DCG) revenue comes from Core-based Xeon processors versus Atom-based parts, but the Atom-based parts do continue to sell and do generate revenue and profit for DCG.
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