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Intel courts China's hardware startups to popularise its mobile, IoT chips

Michael Kan | April 9, 2015
In the battle for chip supremacy, the U.S. tech giant has been trying to dig deep into China's hardware industry, and ensure that not just big vendors use its technology, but small emerging players too.

Erwin Liu is the CEO of a fledgling Chinese startup, and he's been the happy recipient of free chips from Intel.

"Whenever I went to Intel's offices, they would always give us some free samples," he said.

Liu's company, CEIN Biotechnology, which develops finger vein scanners, is just one among the many Chinese tech startups Intel is courting.

In the battle for chip supremacy, the U.S. tech giant has been trying to dig deep into China's hardware industry, and ensure that not just big vendors use its technology, but small emerging players too.

On Wednesday, Intel held its annual developers conference in Shenzhen, China, at a time when rival ARM-based chips from Qualcomm and MediaTek have been all the rage.

Although Intel has dominated the PC and server markets, it has struggled to replicate that success in smartphones and tablets. ARM-based chips have long been favored in mobile devices, even as Intel tries to catch up and offer new, more battery-friendly processors with improved connectivity.

Intel isn't giving up, and in Shenzhen it has been promoting its upcoming mobile technology. The company has also been planting the seeds in China to keep its processors relevant in the long-term, through investment and partnerships.

On Wednesday, Intel announced a "Mass Makerspace Accelerator" program that seeks to fund Chinese startups and developers, with an investment that includes 120 million yuan (US$19.6 million.)

"Makers" can refer to tech hobbyists who enjoy building their own gadgets. But many of them are also establishing hardware startups that are selling wearables and smart home products, and seeking funding on Kickstarter. In Shenzhen, developers have come up with robots that can draw pictures, handheld air purifiers, and new phone charging accessories.

This all comes at a time when the Internet of Things space is starting to take off. Intel is expecting billions of new connected devices to be sold in the coming years for health monitoring, exercise, and smart furniture, among others.

However, it won't just be a few vendors offering these products, but a giant crowd made up of both big and small players, not all of whom are well-known.

During the PC era, Intel's route to chip-selling was defined and straight-forward. For example, in the laptop market, the company only had to work with six or so different notebook manufacturers out of neighboring Taiwan, said Bryan Ma, an analyst with research firm IDC.

That all changed with the arrival of tablets and smartphones. An army of Chinese vendors has stepped up, selling mobile devices across the world, although under brand names few may have heard of.

"Intel is being forced to work with a completely different set of supply chain folks that's doing things quite differently in much smaller quantities," Ma said.

 

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