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Intel's announced PCs packing 5G, and that's just plain wrong

Chipzilla needs more than its old PC-making pals to win 5G

Intel's breathlessly announced that Dell, HP, Lenovo and Microsoft will deploy its 5G modems in their portable PCs sometime in the second half of 2019, and that it will show off prototypes of said laptops at Mobile World Congress (MWC) next week.

Which is actually pretty bad news, because laptops with built-in-modems never became a big market and Intel needs to go well beyond its old PC-making pals to win in 5G.

To understand why this is not a major announcement, consider that PCs packing modems are a product category that has failed to launch.

Analyst house TrendForce told us it believes 500,000 to one million of the devices will ship in 2018, less than one per cent of the 163.8 million laptops it expects to emerge from factories this year.

Gartner has slightly better news. A 2017 paper titled "Microsoft's eSIM-Based Always Connected PCs May Unlock Untapped Segment Growth" assessed the impact of the Qualcomm-powered Windows 10 PCs due to arrive any week now.

Authors Tracy Tsai, Lillian Tay, King-Yew Foong predicted that "By 2020, 13% of thin and light mobile PCs sold will be Always Connected PCs either with discrete modems or integrated systems-on-chip (SoCs) to cater to specific needs for computing performance or general usage."

But Gartner's also predicted that the ultramobile PC market will hit 80 million in the year 2019. That'll leave Intel fighting for 13 per cent of that market: just 10.4 million units. And that's before we subtract the Qualcomm-powered PC market that will almost certainly use that company's 5G modems.

There's also no reason to expect that many of the 10.4 million units will use 5G, because carriers always start their rollouts of new mobile networks in high-value locations like central business districts and airports. The first few square kilometres of coverage just won't make 5G-equipped laptops must-haves. 4G will be a better bet for quite some time among those who need their PCs to be connected full-time.

Intel's news of 5G PCs with its silicon inside therefore actually reveals it is all set to enter a market that's likely to be tiny for years.

The 5G PC announcement is therefore less of a first look at the shining future of the laptop computer and more a sign of how desperate Intel is to crack the 5G market … or any new market, really. The company failed in mobile, has shown few signs of conquering the IoT market, and looks like it's suffering in the data centre as AMD offers a real alternative. Oh, and who could forget that Intel has been strapped to a perpetual-motion-arse-kicking machine by the Meltdown and Spectre messes?

One more thing to remember: HP Ink already uses Qualcomm silicon for its 4G-enabled PCs, which we mention to point out that Intel won't have the always-connected PC modem market to itself.

Intel's pre-MWC promos also mention 5G interoperability demos at MWC, plus a collaboration that should see its XMM 8000 5G modems reach Chinese smartphones in 2019. That's the stuff Intel needs to get right in 5G, because a few million 5G-equipped PCs a year won't scratch the surface of the market or be in any way responsible for, or representative of, the changes next-generation networks will create. ®

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