Wireless Industry Veteran Leading Intel’s Efforts to Deliver a Better Smartphone Experience
Mike Bell holds up an Intel smartphone reference design. (Flickr photo)
Midway through his keynote address at the Intel Developer Forum last fall, Intel President and CEO Paul Otellini demoed slick new software called Pair Share, easily moving photos from a mysterious Android smartphone to a Windows 7 PC.
Twenty minutes later, Google’s Andy Rubin joined Otellini on stage to announce a partnership to ensure that future versions of Android will be optimized for Intel architecture.
Somewhere in the audience Mike Bell was beaming.
This energetic, fast-talking wireless industry veteran only recently took a leadership role on Intel’s mobile efforts, promising “that we’ll work creatively and tirelessly to make our smartphone strategy a reality.”
Last week, Bell was promoted to co-general manager of Intel’s new Mobile and Communications Group, which combined four separate business groups into one large mobile division where he will work side by side with Herman Eul, formerly president of Infineon’s communication group prior to the company’s acquisition by Intel last year. Bell and Eul are now responsible for all of Intel’s mobile wireless, handheld and tablet initiatives.
Bell himself only came to Intel in 2010 after leading product development at Palm for 3 years, and before that spent 16 years at Apple as a vice president involved with the iMac, Apple TV and iPhone programs.
Read on for an edited version of a lively, candid conversation with Bell about how the first Intel smartphone will stand apart from the Android crowd.
Last year, you said, “We must significantly accelerate our progress in phones.” Has that happened?
Bell: [Holding up a phone, nodding] It’s a “Medfield” phone. It’s about as thin as an iPhone. It has HDMI and it actually works. You can make phone calls.
It can take 10 eight-megapixel pictures in 1 second, at full resolution. Theoretically, it could take up to 20 16-megapixel pictures in a second — it has bandwidth to do that — but I have an eight-megapixel sensor on here.
We’ve shown that Medfield has as much potential as we’ve been telling people it has — which is good, always, to validate what you’ve been saying.
“People confuse clever and cluttered — very different concepts. We want to make the applications and the experience smarter.” — Mike Bell (Flickr photo)
The next step, then, is to ship an Android phone?
Bell: Android phones, yes.
How does that change direction for Intel?
Bell: That’s what Apple did, right? Apple reinvented itself. It went from a computer company to a media player and handheld device phone company. If you don’t reinvent, you die. It’s what you have to do.
How will an Intel phone stand apart from the army of Android phones?
Bell: Well, I’ll tell you what we don’t want to do. What we don’t want to do is something tacky, like spinning 3-D cube interfaces.
We don’t want to make the user experience look too much different, but we want to make the applications better by embedding Intel technology underneath them so that the mapping is better, that the contact management is better, that the calendar is able to do things for you based upon it knowing where you are, what meeting you’re supposed to be in. Why can’t it make some intelligent decisions for you?
So we want to add technologies underneath the hood that make the experience smarter, more personalized, and more secure as opposed to just tacky.
Is that more difficult to do with Android? Do you end up with your own special version of Android because you have all that extra stuff? Or do you just build layers underneath that Android hooks into?
Mike Bell came to Intel in 2010 from Palm where he led product development. Prior to that Bell spent 16 years at Apple. (Flickr photo)
Bell: In most cases, I think we can be smart about it and build layers. Our challenge is to make our version of the API better than everyone else’s.
So we add functionality so that when the app runs on our platform, it gets better and smarter transparently and doesn’t have to be recompiled.
In some cases, we may supply our own application that has its own intelligence, but if we do this right, we can probably just make all the applications better on our platform. That’s the goal.
Has the new reference design helped change the conversation with OEMs?
Bell: I think they were pretty surprised, because of what we’d been showing them up until then. Some of the feedback we got is they really appreciated our approach. They said, “Oh, you guys get it. You understand that this is what you need to do to be in this space.”
Frankly, if we can’t prove what you can do with the chipset, why should they believe us? So I think it was really refreshing for them to see not only are we doing slideware but we’re actually backing it up with technology that works.
Do the carriers, the service providers, all have different features and things they want for the phone?
Bell: Every one.
Shifting the subject, what brought you to Intel?
Bell: It was the challenge — similar to having been part of the team that brought Apple back and trying to do the same thing with Palm.
Intel is one of those iconic Silicon Valley companies. It’s the chance to help Intel break into a new business and grow the company, to really fundamentally help make that change. I mean, I build gadgets — how can you not want to build gadgets?