SANTA CLARA, California (Reuters) - Mike Bell likens his new job at Intel Corp to piloting a glider.
The engineer Intel is counting on to spearhead a belated drive into the smartphone arena has refocused its development arm, brought in new blood, and tried to inculcate an appreciation for gadgetry at the decades-old institution.
Now, with Intel at a critical juncture as it prepares to trot out the first smartphones powered by its chips in coming months, Bell has to ensure a smooth touchdown. Failure is not an option for the ex-Apple Inc veteran who flies motorless aircraft in his spare time.
“In a glider, you don’t ‘try’ to land. When you make a decision to land, you’re going to land,” the 44-year-old Bell told Reuters this week.
“Some landings are better than others, but you practice over time, and you get better and better.”
Many on Wall Street deem Intel at a crossroads, where it either has to carve out a share of the mobile market alongside agile rivals like ARM and Samsung Electronics -- or risk becoming irrelevant in the long run.
The world’s largest chipmaker is winging its way deep into unfamiliar territory. After decades at the bleeding edge of PC technology, Intel finds itself left behind in a headlong race to design the brains of a new crop of tablets and smartphones.
Bell, a mechanical engineering major whose resume includes a stint at Palm, hopes to reverse that. Within Intel, he is known as a “phone guy” with a good understanding of chips, rather than a “chip guy” trying to figure out phones.
Underscoring the urgency of his brief, Chief Executive Paul Otellini has given Bell carte blanche to draw on Intel’s assets. Bell has used that to rope experts from different departments into an autonomous group focused on integrating software like Android with Intel’s chip designs.
Intel for now is keeping most of its advances close to the vest. But in a field where power-efficiency ranks about as high as computing velocity, Bell believes Intel’s newest chip, the Medfield, is just about ready for prime time.
“Medfield is our first real foray into the space. We have no apologies to make in power or performance. It’s a fantastic first step for us,” the shaggy-haired executive said.
Worldwide smartphone processor sales came to $2.24 billion (1.43 billion pounds) in the third quarter, according to market research firm Strategy Analytics. That’s a pittance compared with Intel’s $14.7 billion in revenue in the same quarter.
But smartphone sales are expected to grow 32 percent next year, according to IHS iSuppli, while some experts see marginal PC microprocessor demand growth at best.
With the tablet and smartphone market booming -- partly at the expense of personal computers -- investors worry that the chipmaker’s setback in mobile could leave it badly positioned for future waves of mobile devices.
Intel’s shares trade at around $24 -- about in line with pre-recession levels below $30.
2012 will provide the acid test for Intel’s mobile offerings. Otellini said in November “a number” of manufacturers are using the Medfield in Google Android smartphones hitting the market in the first half of next year.
Some experts believe Intel’s proprietary architecture is ill-suited for mobile processors. Apple and other manufacturers rely on technology licensed by Britain’s ARM Holdings.
But Bell, who left Palm to join Intel more than a year ago, believes Medfield can hold its own against rival chips offered by the likes of Qualcomm Inc and Nvidia.
With processors also made by Texas Instruments Inc and Samsung stealing the show, his engineers have been laboring to adapt technology refined over decades for PCs to work better in handheld devices without quickly draining their batteries.
“Based on our own internal research, we think Medfield is going to be very competitive in the time frame that it ships against anything in the market,” he argued.
Bell has brought in talent from outside to propel his effort, including engineers from Apple and other smartphone makers. And he has leveraged an internal R&D machine that the chipmaker poured almost $7 billion into last year.
Intel will manufacture Medfield using a 32-nanometer process, which packs more transistors into the same space than rival chips made on wider line-width processes. It plans next year to shrink the process down to 22 nanometers.
“We already have the next three generations on the drawing board and in process,” Bell said.
His rapid ascent at Intel came at a time of turbulence. He began in July 2010 as a vice president in charge merely of building reference devices to show off chips to customers. Salesmen at the time wielded a brick-like device that could perform basic features -- but sorely lacked panache.
To help his team and customers envision the experience, he designed a whole new Android smartphone, distributed to potential clients and internally to a thousand employees. Their feedback helped inform development.
In March, Bell and Dave Whalen took over the Ultra Mobility division after Intel veteran Anand Chandrasekher, who led Intel’s charge into netbooks, resigned. Some investors took his departure as a sign the company was struggling with its smartphone strategy.
Then a week ago, Intel consolidated four divisions into a mobile and communications unit led by Bell and ex-Infineon executive Hermann Eul. Both are general managers of the group, but Bell heads up processor development while Eul oversees connectivity chips including modems, Bluetooth and WiFi.
At Palm, Bell had led a team that created the Pre and Pixi. But he became one of many to jump ship after the struggling company was acquired by Hewlett Packard Co last year.
Before that, he spent 16 years at Apple, where he had a hand in developing the iMac, iPhone and Apple TV. One industry insider who had worked with him said Bell’s ace card is his ability to understand how to design and build phones and bring them to market. He sees how different parts work together, like software and hardware, instead of concentrating on chips.
“If you really want to be effective at what you do these days, it’s hard in isolation to be good at just one piece. So much of being able to create a system is understanding the entire flow,” Bell said. “That’s what makes the difference between a really great product and something that you say, ‘Hmm, this isn’t really well-put-together.'”
Bell, a partner in a Napa Valley winery who toyed with the idea of starting his own vineyard after HP bought Palm, now relishes the chance to lead Intel into battle.
”Projections in the smartphone space far outpace the growth of PCs. How can I not want to be involved in that? “The wine business can wait.”
Reporting by Noel Randewich, editing by Edwin Chan and Matthew Lewis