Intel - the end of speeds and feeds?

Every year, Intel holds its tech fest for developers in San Francisco – Intel Developers’ Form, or IDF.  For as long as I can remember, one of the main highlights has been the announcement of the latest ‘tick’ or ‘tock’ of its processor evolution, along with a riveting demonstration of how fast the processor is with a speed dial showing the megahertz of the processor (yawn).

This year, things were different.  Sure, desktops and laptops were still talked about, but in a different way.  The main discussions were around how the world is changing – and how Intel also has to change to remain valid in the market.  So, CEO Brian Krzanich took to the stage with a range of new demonstrations and messages around the internet of things (IoT), security, mobility and other areas.

As an example, the keynote kicked off with two large inflated beach balls containing positional sensors being punched around the hall by the audience.  These were shown in real time on the projection screen on the stage as two comets that had to hit an image of an asteroid on the screen – a simple but effective demonstration of the use of small sensors being used in a 3D environment.  This was made even clearer when Intel placed two of its latest devices based on its ‘Curie’ micro system on chip (SoC) on a jump bike.  The bike’s movements could be replicated against a computer model, providing the rider with performance stats as well as visual feedback – or for viewers to see data on any jump trick performed.

A larger SoC design can be seen in the Intel Edison – more of a development platform for techies, but again, showing how Intel is providing more of a series of platforms rather than just bare-bones processors and chipsets.  Intel’s ‘next unit of computing’ (NUC) takes things one step further with a series of full, very small form factor computer systems.

As well as being a general small form factor device, the NUC forms the basis for further broadening Intel’s potential reach.

The first of its offers built on NUC uses Intel’s Unite software – a communication and collaboration hub that makes meeting rooms easier and more effective to use.  Currently available from HP (with Dell and Lenovo amongst others expected to offer systems soon), a Unite system provides the capability for different people to connect to projectors via WiDi (Intel’s wireless screen sharing protocol), as well as enabling screen sharing and collaboration capabilities amongst a distributed group.  Unite is also a complementary system to existing collaboration systems, so can integrate in to Microsoft Lync or Polycom audio and videoconferencing systems.  Intel is committed to further upgrades to the Unite system creating an intelligent hub for a smart conference room, with controls for lighting, heating and so on.

On the security front, Intel is looking at building security into chips themselves.  Having recognised that challenge and response systems were far too easy to break, Intel is looking at areas such as biometrics.  However, it also realised the perils behind holding details of anyone’s biometrics in a manner that could be stolen (i.e. if a hacker can steal your fingerprint or retinal ‘signature’, they can then back-engineer a means of feeding this to systems that hold that signature)  – replacing retinas, fingerprints of facial features is not as easy as replacing a stolen password.  Therefore, it will be building into future chips the capability for the biometric data to be stored in a non-retrievable manner within the chip itself.  A biometric reader will take a reading from the user and send this to the chip.  The chip will compare it to what it has stored, and will then issue a one-time token that is then used to access the network and applications. Through this means, biometric data is secured, and users may never have to remember a password ever again.

This then brings us back to the thorny question of desktops and laptops.  Intel still sells a lot of processors for these devices, but in the age of web-based applications being served from the cloud, the need for high-powered access devices has been shrinking.  Gone are the days when organisations pretty much had to update their machines every three years in order to provide the power to deal with bloated desktop applications.  With cloud and virtual desktops, the refresh cycle has been extending – and many organisations have now been looking to five or even seven years (with a few just looking to ‘replace when dead’) refreshes.

To drive refresh, Intel needs new messaging for its PC manufacturer partners.  This is where security comes in to play.  The security-on-chip approach is not backwards compatible, organisations that wish to become more secure and move away from the username/password paradigm will need to move to the newer processors.

However, this still only presents a one-off refresh: unless Intel can continue to bring new innovations to the processor itself, then it will continue to see the role of desktops and laptops decrease as mobile devices take more market share.

So, Intel also needs to play in the mobility sector.  Here, it talked about its role in 5G – the rolling up of all the previous mobile connectivity standards into a single, flexible platform.  The idea here is that systems will be capable of moving from one technology to another for connectivity, and that intelligence will be used to ensure that data uses the best transport for its needs – for example, ensuring that low-latency, high bandwidth traffic, such as video, goes over 4G, whereas email could go over 2G.  Pulling all of this together will require intelligence in the silicon and software where Intel plays best.

Overall, IDF 2015 was a good event – lots of interesting examples of where Intel is and can play.  The devil is in the detail, though, and Intel will need to compete with not only its standard foes (AMD, ARM and co), but also those it is bringing into greater play with its software and mobile offerings (the likes of Polycom, Infineon, TI, Motorola, etc.).

For Intel, it will all be about how well it can create new messaging and how fast it can get this out to its partners, prospects and customers.  Oh dear – it is all about speeds and feeds after all…