Can Intel "touch everyone on Mother Earth"?
For many companies, such grandiose claims might summon a dismissive eye roll. But the chipmaker is one of the few organizations big enough and, as the primary perpetuator of Moore's Law, innovative enough to actually make good on the intent.
The grand ambition was declared by Dadi Perlmutter, executive VP and general manager of Intel Architecture Group, during his keynote address Tuesday at the Intel Developer Forum (IDF) in San Francisco. Intel's vision is "not just about creating great business for its stockholders," he said. Rather, the company strives to create "things for humanity. Things that will touch everything, everyone."
It's a great sound bite--but how does Intel plan to move forward? After all, even Apple, current ruler of the "world's biggest company" throne, has been limited to more modest endeavors--like saving the economy.
For Intel, the answer starts inside the machines, of course. At IDF, Perlmutter provided the first official details of the newest Core processors, code-named Haswell. The chips won't change the world by themselves--but by offering better performance while consuming less energy, they'll be a good start. And even if world-changing aspirations fall short, the new micro-architecture's graphics-processing boost should make gamers happy.
But the chips are facilitating advances that redefine the computing experience. Perlmutter declared that touch-enabled devices are only the beginning of expanded computing interfaces, and demonstrated forthcoming voice and gesture-based functions that will allow us to interact with machines in more ways. Someday, he indicated, the Internet of Things will stream data not only from traditional computers but also most other objects with which we engage--a forecast that would allow our environments to learn about us and respond to our needs more accurately.
The varied form factors facilitated by smaller, more sophisticated chips such as Haswell are steps in this direction, as they not only make devices more mobile but also change the tasks for which devices are used. Doctors, one IDF demonstration asserted, can use tablets to access patient documents more effectively and ultimately provide better care.
All of this technology will have an impact--but can it be as grand as Intel hopes? The company is taking steps such as a contest to attract developers to help accelerate the plan. The biggest results are still years away, so only time will tell. But in the meantime, read on to learn which technologies Intel thinks will one day reshape our world.
Haswell is the fourth generation of Intel's Core chips. The third-generation Ivy Bridge i7 chips now power most newer laptops. The forthcoming upgrade is built using the same 22-nm process as its predecessor, but is engineered to produce better graphics and more energy-efficient processing. Haswell chips should begin appearing in devices as soon as the first quarter of 2013.
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The Haswell chips will enable longer battery life due to more efficient power management. In one demonstration, pictured above, Perlmutter demonstrated that a Haswell chip drawing fewer than 8 watts was able to match the performance of an Ivy Bridge chip running at a full 17 watts. When the Haswell chip's energy consumption was boosted to match its predecessor's, the new processor left the current tech in the dust. Indeed, Intel says the new offerings are 20 times more efficient than the second-generation Sandy Bridge chips. Haswell also packs more graphics processing punch, meaning that gamers, creative professionals, and anyone else who requires high-resolution imaging will be able to choose from a larger variety of devices, many of them mobile, to get the job done.
Slim, light, and powerful, Ultrabooks are part of Intel's plans to inject life into a PC market diluted by tablets and other mobile devices. Intel sees such devices playing a big role in its future, as the hybrid form factors being unveiled are direct beneficiaries of smaller, more energy-efficient computing. Ultrabooks will continue to be a major company focus, especially after Windows 8 ships.
Having conquered thinness, ultrabook makers must continue to unroll new advances. At IDF, software demonstrations promised Ultrabooks that accurately respond to voice commands for shopping results, music selections, and social media posts.
Haswell chips will be in dozens of mobile devices, including laptops, tablets, and hybrid PCs based on both Windows 8 and Android. However, Intel, which has dominated the chip-making scene for PCs and servers, needs to find ways to spread to smartphones.
Intel admirably handled a dip in PC demand during Q2 but slashed its earnings expectations for the most recent quarter--so it's been an up-and-down year for the semiconductor giant. Emerging markets should continue to drive Intel's PC business for the short term, and at least some analysts are bullish on the company's long-term prospects--but to achieve the earth-shaking goals it has planned, Intel will need a foothold in the smartphone world.
ARM is Intel's chief target in this market. Apple's iPhone 5, for example, has ARM inside, as expected. As InformationWeek columnist Kurt Marko notes in his analysis of what Intel showed at IDF, Intel's big challenge is to win over hardware device partners who have moved on to other platforms. "It's not too late, but as we learned over the last couple weeks, Apple, Amazon, and Google aren't standing still," Marko says.
IDF's opening keynote included a Coke vending machine that uses an i7 Ivy Bridge CPU to power a touchscreen user interface. The soda dispenser also includes Wi-Fi and a camera, allowing users to share their purchases with friends through social networking. Whether consumers are eager to share their beverage preferences via Twitter or Facebook is unclear--but the machine still demonstrates how the Internet of Things could emerge. With more devices linked to networks, enormous amounts of data can be procured to help the technology better adapt to user needs. Such connected machines also represent big data opportunities; with thirsty users snapping pictures, Coke will be able to find out what kinds of people are purchasing its products in given regions. The company will gain useful data, in other words, without the effort of an independent research campaign.
The IDF convention floor featured many consumer-oriented products. One--a middleware chat client, pictured above and developed by Intel--senses nearby friends in order to facilitate ad hoc gaming sessions, easy, drag-and-drop file sharing, and more. Developers will have a chance to build on Intel's foundation, and the potential for expanded applications, such as enterprise use, could emerge. Other intriguing technologies highlighted during the show include near-field communication integration for use with MasterCard's PayPass Wallet.
Perlmutter said Haswell-powered devices will include enterprise-ready tablets, and IDF exhibits included Windows 8 applications intended for large organizations. One sales app, pictured above, can pull data from the company's CRM database and create a visual interface of "bubbles," each representing a discrete sales event. Touch-based controls allow users to tweak each bubble, causing dynamic reactions among the others. As changes ripple out, users can see how parameter changes affect overall goals.
Intel representative John Wallace said the demonstration was running on Cloverfield, Intel's next-gen system-on-a-chip (SoC) offering. "It's showing how the new Windows 8 UI can talk to a backend database," he said, alluding to how devices running the new Microsoft OS can help personnel in the field.
Intel's ambition to impact everyone on Earth stems not only from the Internet of Things or better processors, but also from what Perlmutter called "perceptual computing"--linked devices that can sense environmental data and learn from it, perhaps to the extent that users can interact with the machines in the same casual way they react with other humans.
Perlmutter remarked that his daughter knows the difference between various finger movements, but that his "computer has no clue--yet." Future machines won't have this problem, and other capabilities--such as facial recognition--aren't far off.
"To ignite the industry," Intel is initiating a perceptual computing contest, Perlmutter said. Collaboration, he said, "creates less decay," referring to the technological starts and stops often engendered by competing standards and disagreement. The chance to avoid such delays "is what working with the industry really means," he remarked.
The contest will go live in the fourth quarter, and Intel will release an SDK for would-be competitors. The prize will be $1 million in awards and promotions.