Intel Can't Afford to Miss Windows Phone

Intel Can't Afford to Miss Windows Phone

Every phone based on Microsoft's Windows Phone comes powered with a Qualcomm processor. This is probably more of an artifact of the fact that no other merchant chip vendor has a credible high-end processor and modem solution for phones/phablets. But it is rather troubling that Intel -- the merchant chip vendor best equipped to go toe-to-toe with Qualcomm at the high end -- made no mention of Windows Phone support at its recent analyst day. This is a mistake.

Windows Phone is good for the long-haul
It is completely understandable that Intel, given its rather difficult situation in phones, would choose to allocate the vast majority of its development resources to handsets based on Google's Android; frankly, the return on investment there is probably much greater, given the massive unit volumes on Android compared to those of Windows Phone. Handsets based on Android comprise 81% of the smartphone market with Windows Phone (i.e. Microsoft/Nokia) coming in at a paltry 3.6%.

That being said, investing -- either as individual investors in common stock or for corporations in new businesses -- is about trying to figure out where the growth is going to be rather than on where it has already been. The Android handset market is going to grow. Even with Samsung holding 39% of the Android handset TAM "captive" with its own chips -- or with intentions to use its own chips long-term -- there's plenty of volume to be had.

However, it's tough to ignore that Windows Phone shipments have about tripled, year over year, in the third quarter of 2013. The platform comprised 3.6% of all handset shipments -- up from 2% just a year ago.

Microsoft's Windows Phone platform will continue to grow, and with Microsoft's massive financial resources backing Nokia's old handset division, it's tough to imagine that Windows Phone won't be a major force in the smartphone market over the long haul. Is it likely to be as popular as Android-based handsets? No, but there's a very real chance that -- thanks to Microsoft's willingness to compete across different price points -- unit volumes could meet or even exceed those of Apple's iOS at some point over the next five years.

Intel needs to be in on this
While Intel chases Android, it seems to be completely neglecting Microsoft's Windows Phone. The company has had a few job listings pop up periodically, asking for developers with Windows Phone experience. But it's puzzling that the company did not announce its intentions to play on Windows Phone at its recent analyst day. Indeed, the company's party line has been that it wants to be the "port of choice" on every relevant platform, and has even gone so far as to beat its chest about its presence in Chromebooks.

But where's the Windows Phone push? Where's the deepening of the relationship with Microsoft, the world's largest and arguably most important software company? Intel routinely touts that Windows 8.1 is a great opportunity, particularly given the advantages that being able to produce x86 processors brings to the tablet. However, each day that Intel doesn't participate in Windows Phone is just another day that the ARM ecosystem -- led, in this case, by Qualcomm -- becomes a more important, deeply entrenched part of the Microsoft ecosystem.

Foolish bottom line
Intel's smartphone efforts have been valiant on the software side, but for whatever reason, the company simply has been making poor decision after poor decision when it comes to smartphones. Further, the company seems to be taking tablets -- which, admittedly, threaten the company's low-end PC chip lines more than phones do -- much more seriously than smartphones. Part of this is due to the company's communications chips not quite being up to snuff with Qualcomm's. But even on the applications processor front, Intel is still not where it needs to be.

Thanks to the ubiquity of Android, Intel can probably make a meaningful business in smartphones if it can provide a truly competitive, Android-compatible suite of processors. However, with much of the Android market held captive by Samsung, and with Qualcomm's deep relationships with all of the Android vendors, ignoring Windows Phone looks to this Fool like leaving money on the table.

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Ashraf Eassa owns shares of Intel. The Motley Fool recommends Google and Intel. The Motley Fool owns shares of Google, Intel, Microsoft, and Qualcomm. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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Originally published