Intel. Big name in servers, big name in desktops, big name in laptops and netbooks, even. But you don’t hear much about Intel in the smartphone and tablet worlds, now do you? That might just be about to change, though it remains to be seen if it’s too late for Intel to gain a real toehold in a mobile chipset market currently dominated by the likes of ARM, whose silicon is used in designs from Apple, NVIDIA, Samsung, TI, and Qualcomm, to name a few of the biggest players in the space.

The Silicon Valley titan has been showing off processor roadmaps and hardware reference designs this week at IDF Beijing, including a new version of the MeeGo mobile OS and tablets based on new additions to the Atom processor line. Coincidentally or not, a leaked report Tuesday claims the chipmaker has designed an Atom-based smartphone for ZTE Corp that may go on sale in China.

Meantime, Intel also rolled out their Atom Z670 “Oak Trail” tablet processor and hinted at a next-gen chip called “Cloverview.” Both bits of news came during a speech Tuesday at IDF, at which company reps said that the first of nearly three dozen Oak Trail-based tablets will go on sale as early as next month. Some of these devices could run Android 3.0 Honeycomb, as PCWorld is reporting that Google is working with Intel to port the platform to the Oak Trail architecture. Intel, of course, doesn’t manufacture consumer electronics themselves, but the company does work very closely with OEM partners designing tablets and other products around their silicon.  A full year ago Intel announced that they’d ported Android to Atom processors, but consumers haven’t seen too much in the way of products come out of that news.

Intel would do well to keep its options open, and so is wisely showing off a new version of MeeGo at IDF Beijing, as well. MeeGo launched as a high-profile contender in the mobile platform wars, but the Linux variant never really took off and has been easily outpaced by Android and iOS. Nokia was an early partner on MeeGo but has since struck a deal with Microsoft and seems committed to building Windows Phone 7 devices while trying to salvage some last bits from their years-long investment in Symbian. Some reports have Intel pushing MeeGo in China, an idea that jibes with the ZTE smartphone rumor, and the company this week announced a partnership with Chinese Internet giant Tencent to open a joint innovation center to develop Atom and MeeGo-based products and services.

Will we see Intel-powered Android tablets in May? Can they compete with the flood of ARM-based Froyo and Honeycomb slates already on the market, and the new wave of machines slated to run Windows-on-ARM a bit further on down the road? Does Intel have a few tricks up their sleeve to separate their Honeycomb machines from the pack, or will they go the sheer volume route, selling silicon to OEMs across the globe while trying to gain a foothold for MeeGo in China and other emerging markets?

So many questions! Who’s got an answer or two?

[Via: Businessweek, NetbookNews (Video), PCWorld, PCWorld (2);]