If Medfield lives up to expectations, it'll be the first Intel SoC truly capable of challenging ARM.
Intel's Atom roadmap through 2014. Note that Atom won't debut on a cutting-edge process until 2014, but the product's ramp curve accelerates dramatically in 2012-2013.
We suspect Intel's renewed focus and redefinition of the PC market is due in part to the dearth of x86 tablet solutions. Nokia and Intel are still working on Meego, but the former's prominent decision to standardize on Windows Phone 7 going forward dramatically reduced the resources and focus the Finnish company was willing to commit to the open-source operating system. Windows 7's unoptimized-for-fingers UI makes it a bad joke as far as tablets are concerned, while the Android x86 project isn't ready for prime time yet.
The iPad was conspicuous by its absence from the discussion, Intel never even referred to the device. Apple's design to build customized ARM cores has locked the CPU manufacturer out of what's arguably the only successful tablet currently on the market. If Apple's interested in switching ARM for x86, the company's done nothing to indicate it—the A5 processor that powers the iPad 2 will undoubtedly scale to higher performance and lower power consumption as companies like TSMC move to 28nm.
Then again, Jobs has repeatedly demonstrated that he's more interested in competitive hardware than he is in CPU branding. Having an in-house silicon design team is a feather in Apple's cap, but the company would likely switch to Intel's Atom if that processor demonstrated a better performance-per-watt ratio than what Apple felt it could achieve.
Intel's redefinition of the PC market will have a significant impact on the shape of things to come. The company isn't abandoning notebook users who prefer more powerful systems that fit the traditional 35W envelope, but its focus on low power consumption and extended battery life could impact the amount of R&D various companies devote to these two pursuits. This would be particularly welcome where batteries are concerned.
According to the website Battery University, "the energy density of modern batteries improves by about 10 percent per year." The reason we don't see that additional capacity making a tremendous difference over time is that device power consumption has typically increased just as fast (if not faster) than energy density does. Intel's new focus could put the brakes on that trend and lead to better runtimes for everyone. Atom has its place, but most users would prefer the power of a higher-end processor and an Atom-equipped netbook's battery life.