Intel has worked hard and spent a lot of money over the years to shape its image: it is the company that celebrates its quest to make computer chips ever smaller, faster, and cheaper with a quick five-note jingle at the end of its commercials.
But as Intel tries to expand beyond the personal-computer chip business, it is changing in subtle ways. For the first time, its long unheralded software developers, more than 3,000 of them, have stolen some of the spotlight from its hardware engineers. These programmers find themselves at the center of Intel's forays into areas like mobile phones and video games.
The most attention-grabbing element of Intel's software push is a version of the open-source Linux operating system called Moblin. It represents a direct assault on the Windows franchise of Microsoft, Intel's longtime partner.
"This is a very determined, risky effort on Intel's part," said Mark Shuttleworth, the chief executive of Canonical, which makes another version of Linux called Ubuntu.
The Moblin software resembles Windows or Apple's Mac OS X to a degree, handling the basic functions of running a computer. But it has a few twists that Intel says make it better suited for small mobile devices.
For example, Moblin fires up and reaches the Internet in about seven seconds, then displays a novel type of start-up screen. People will find their appointments listed on one side of the screen, along with their favorite programs. But the bulk of the screen is taken up by cartoonish icons that show things like social-networking updates from friends, photos, and recently used documents.
With animated icons and other quirky bits and pieces, Moblin looks like a fresh take on the operating system. Some companies hope it will give Microsoft a strong challenge in the market for the small, cheap laptops commonly known as Netbooks. A polished second version of the software, which is in trials, should start appearing on a variety of Netbooks this summer.
"We really view this as an opportunity and a game changer," said Ronald W. Hovsepian, the chief executive of Novell, which plans to offer a customized version on Moblin to computer makers. Novell views Moblin as a way to extend its business selling software and services related to Linux.
While Moblin fits Netbooks well today, it was built with smartphones in mind. Those smartphones explain why Intel was willing to needle Microsoft.
Intel has previously tried and failed to carve out a prominent stake in the market for chips used in smaller computing devices like phones. But the company says one of its newer chips, called Atom, will solve this riddle and help it compete against the likes of Texas Instruments and Qualcomm.
The low-power, low-cost Atom chip sits inside most of the Netbooks sold today, and smartphones using the chip could start arriving in the next couple of years.
To make Atom a success, Intel plans to use software for leverage. Its needs Moblin because most of the cell phone software available today runs on chips whose architecture is different from Atom's. To make Atom a worthwhile choice for phone makers, there must be a supply of good software that runs on it.
"The smartphone is certainly the end goal," said Doug Fisher, a vice president in Intel's software group. "It's absolutely critical for the success of this product."
Though large, Intel's software group has remained out of the spotlight for years. Intel considers its software work a silent helping hand for computer makers.
Mostly, the group sells tools that help other software developers take advantage of features in Intel's chips. It also offers free consulting services to help large companies wring the most performance out of their code, in a bid to sell more chips.
Renee J. James, Intel's vice president in charge of software, explained, "You can't just throw hardware out there into the world."
Intel declines to disclose its revenue from these tools, but it is a tiny fraction of the close to $40 billion in sales Intel racks up every year.
Still, the software group is one of the largest at Intel and one of the largest such organizations at any company.
In the last few years, Intel's investment in Linux, the main rival to Windows, has increased. Intel has hired some of the top Linux developers, including Alan Cox from Red Hat, the leading Linux seller, last year. Intel pays these developers to improve Linux as a whole and to further the company's own projects like Moblin.
"Intel definitely ranks pretty highly when it comes to meaningful contributions," Linus Torvalds, who created the core of Linux and maintains the software, wrote in an e-mail message. "They went from apparently not having much of a strategy at all to having a rather wide team."
Intel has also bought software companies. Last year, it acquired OpenedHand, a company whose work has turned into the base of the new Moblin user interface.
It has also bought a handful of software companies with expertise in gaming and graphics technology. Such software is meant to create a foundation to support Intel's release of new high-powered graphics chips next year. Intel hopes the graphics products will let it compete better against Nvidia and Advanced Micro Devices and open up another new business.