Hardware development may not always be sexy, but I confess that I get a real thrill from attending the Intel Developer Forum (IDF) every year. The conference, held at the Moscone Centre, is one of the rare times that deep-dive tech actually gets a real shot at making headlines. (That can sometimes be difficult given that, in recent years, IDF has been held during the same week as Apple's yearly iPhone announcement, but that's neither here nor there).
A trip to IDF can teach you as much as you're willing or able to learn, but to my mind there were 10 major takeaways from this year's show that are worth paying attention to given the impact they could have on the industry in the coming year, and for quite a while after that.
1. Intel may have a real shot at mobile this time
Our lead mobile analyst, Sascha Segan, has been aware of Intel's trouble breaking into the smartphone and tablet markets for years. Nvidia and Qualcomm seem so far ahead, and ARM so entrenched, that even an enormous force like Intel doesn't have it easy. But its new Bay Trail platform received significant attention, and is already inspiring some notable designs – a relatively powerful PC tablet along the lines of the Asus Transformer Book T100 is hard to ignore. It’s true that with Bay Trail right now, Intel is a bit closer to keeping pace than leading the pack – but even so, such a high-profile start gives the company somewhere real to go, and suggests excellent potential for its Merrifield phone platform next year.
2. Escaping the yoke of Microsoft is a major Intel goal
For better or worse, Microsoft and Intel have been stuck with the "Wintel" moniker for ages – it's tough to think of one without the other. Never in my years of going to IDF, however, can I remember Intel so publicly trying to loosen the bands of that relationship's apparent exclusivity. No, Intel isn't abandoning Microsoft, but in many of the keynote addresses and break-out sessions a lot was made of how new developments are as much about Android and Chrome as they are Windows. One green Android mascot frequently wandered around outside Moscone, and an inanimate version was planted conspicuously on the show floor. The Wintel concept may not be officially extinct – it will be a long time before that happens, if it ever does – but it's quickly becoming only one way to think about both companies' offerings.
3. We can't conceive how much smaller computers will become
Just in my lifetime, I've seen personal computers become tinier and more powerful than it seems should have been possible – the 30 years I've been paying attention to tech have been a wild ride of potential realised and miniaturisation achieved. But I began to understand during IDF that all that was only the beginning. Intel CEO Brian Krzanich introducing the Quark SoC, one-fifth the size of Atom (which is already pretty small compared to Core) and running on one-tenth the power, drove home that the industry's goal is to have chips in every device, even things we wouldn't otherwise think of, and make wearable tech as ubiquitous as the smartphone. And attending a briefing with the SSD group highlighting enterprise drives using the M.2 form factor, which isn't much bigger than a keychain card, made it seem like there’s no barrier on how far systems can shrink. Doing worthwhile, responsible things with systems that size is of course another matter, but never again will I say any tech device or platform can't get smaller – because it always can.
4. It won't be long before there's no difference between high and low power
Bay Trail introduced the concept and Quark reinforced it: Traditional power issues will soon become unrecognisable compared to those we have today. Platforms are becoming so small and their manufacturing processes so microscopic (how many years ago did you think you'd never hear anyone seriously talking about 14nm?) that eventually we'll barely notice these parts or the energy they use. We've been seeing this on consumer hardware for a while, with each new generation of Core processor making mind-boggling energy usage gains over the one that came before, so the only surprising thing is the scale. As things continue, putting an impossibly complex part in an incredibly simple device will be a cinch, and there will be no need for most of us to pay hundreds or indeed thousands more for something better. The lower-end stuff will be more than amazing enough.
5. The desktop may not be totally dead yet...
With the proliferation of laptops, smartphones, and now tablets, the easiest sweeping industry change to predict has been the death of the desktop. And yet it's never happened – as popular as the other devices become, there's always a need for some kind of standalone computer. One full track at IDF was even devoted to the desktop, if specifically the all-in-one, and the particular session I attended, "All-in-One PCs – Putting a Spark Back into Desktop PCs," showed that there are plenty of ideas out there for maintaining relevance in the years ahead. Mobile, again, is the key: Graphics and power improvements make full-out desktops portable in a way they've never before been, and big screens and real keyboards make those systems legitimately desirable to many people. If old-school desktop lovers still have reason to feel melancholy, there's real reason for hope again.
6. ...but system building is on life support
If the all-in-one has the potential to revive the desktop market, it can't do much for the people (including, well, me) who prefer building their PCs from scratch. There are kits out there that let you build all-in-ones, but they're hard to find and fairly limited (especially if you don't have the know-how to make your own touchscreen, which even most die-hard DIY’ers don't). And although certain hardware companies did have a presence at IDF for discussing motherboards, video cards, and the like, they couldn't stop system building from feeling more niche-like than ever. I believe that the human yearning for creation will ensure that builders find a way to continue somehow, but I don't see how the pursuit will ever again be as vital as it once was.
7. We've already lost the privacy battle
In her keynote speech last Thursday, Dr Genevieve Bell held an impressive demonstration in which she and a colleague explored how your smartphone already knows more about you than you may realise. If it can recognise your voice when someone other than you is carrying it, what can't it do? It's cool technology, to be sure, that could have an infinite number of practical applications, but using them could mean giving up the last vestiges of your privacy. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, and no one at Intel gave any reason to believe more than we already might that devices or the companies behind them could use your information for nefarious purposes, but it's yet another step towards a quite different, and perhaps darker, future.
8. Big tech companies face the same struggles we do
It must be any presenter's worst nightmare: You're showing off some unreal forward-thinking tech, and it doesn't work in front of a class full of dozens of people. At least three times. As interesting as the speech recognition session otherwise was, I didn't get as strong a sense as I'd hoped that the technology is poised to take off; it's obviously still crippled by too many variables and inconsistencies. Then there was the daily reminder during the keynote speeches that even Intel's Wi-Fi system can't handle heavy loads – the press network alone was so overloaded, I was lucky to get 30 seconds of continuous connectivity. Occurrences like these underscore the universality of such problems, and show how much further everyone has to go before we're living in the completely connected world so many companies (including Intel) envision.
9. Keynote addresses are difficult to do well
Why was there a coffee shop on the stage of the IDF keynote hall? Why, to show how Intel products fit into everyday life, of course! Why did Wednesday's keynote feature an unending parade of tech CEOs, vice presidents, and other mover-and-shaker types who were only allowed to speak about their products for a few seconds? And why are "inspirational" or aspirational videos shown during these speeches every year, regardless of how much momentum they kill? Watching these keynotes, one could not deny the breadth of Intel's accomplishments, but they came dangerously close to detracting from the real advancements and innovations everyone was there to tout. Keynote addresses can (and should) be entertaining, but it's easy to go too far, and if Intel hasn't yet, they're looking down that road. This, by the way, is not remotely a challenge unique to Intel. Elvis Costello, Apple? Really?
10. Intel has the future in mind
One of the most enlightening sessions I attended was on the last day: A panel discussion called "A 'Sneak Peek' Into Intel Research... What's Next?" In it, a sextet of the company's futurists explained how they're researching some truly exciting new ways to expand the tech we have today. From making robots a popular reality through solving problems with traffic and infrastructure to making your home and car as personalised towards your comfort and preferences as they can be, there are some fascinating things coming in the next five to 15 years.
The key, for me, came from Senior Principal Engineer Tony Salvador, who mused on the creation of a "personal digital genome" that would enable customisation of TV, the news, vacations, and much more to proceed well beyond anything we have today. Bringing that concept to life will demand the convergence of all the IDF concepts – high performance, low profile, low power – and rethinking what technology can, and should, do for us. But if it comes to pass, it will mark a fundamental shift in how we view and interact with the world, and give us options we've never before dreamed of. Yes – all this is incredible – that was the underlying message of the session and of IDF, but we haven't seen anything yet.