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CES 2014: Does Intel’s new focus on wearables mark the end of its smartphone ambitions?

Intel has delivered its keynote at CES 2014, and rather refreshingly the presentation focused almost entirely on wearable and perceptual computing. After years of struggling with the Ultrabook moniker and trying to squeeze its way into the smartphone market, it seems Intel is finally ready to lead from the front and create new markets, rather than milk existing markets dry.

It’s far from confirmed, but we would not be surprised if this was the end of Intel’s smartphone aspirations. With Intel’s launch of Dual OS devices that run Android and Windows on the same chip, it hasn’t given up on mobile entirely – but there’s still a very long road ahead of Intel if the company wants to break into the tablet market in a significant way.

Wearables, wearables, wearables

Back in September 2013, Intel surprised us by showing off Quark – a small, low-power core that’s designed to be produced cheaply at foundries like TSMC, much like an ARM core. At CES 2014, Intel is now showing off a range of gadgets and wearable devices – reference designs, not final products – that appear to be powered by the same Quark processor.

The first device was an earpiece called Jarvis, which is worn on the ear like a Bluetooth headset. The idea is that Jarvis is always-listening, allowing you to issue Siri-like commands at any time – save an appointment in your calendar, phone a friend, etc. Like other wearable computers, Jarvis itself is fairly dumb; for most of its capabilities, it bonds with an Android smartphone via Bluetooth. Sadly, we’re not yet at the point where headsets – a class of devices that includes Google Glass – have the battery power to perform complex calculations and remain permanently connected via Wi-Fi or GSM/LTE.

Next up was a smartwatch prototype, which apparently doesn’t need to be tethered to a smartphone, and has built-in GPS, so that it can be used for geofencing (good for keeping track of your wandering schoolkids and spouse). If this has built-in cellular connectivity (which is implied by the lack of tethering), this could be a very exciting device indeed. Intel also demonstrated some smart earbuds that monitor your heart rate, while being powered via your device’s headphone jack.

Making everything smart

Much more interesting than vaguely useful wearables, though, Intel’s Krzanich also unveiled Edison – an SD card form factor computer. “It’s a full Pentium-class PC in the form factor of an SD card,” Krzanich said. Inside the SD card is a dual-core 22nm Quark processor, RAM, flash storage, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios, and a microcontroller for real-time I/O with external devices. Edison currently runs Linux, but Intel didn’t give any further guidance on OS support.

The idea behind Edison is to make everything smart. As long as a device has an SD card slot and some kind of power source, you could theoretically use Edison to turn it into a smart device. On stage at CES 2014, Intel showed off the “smart turtle” baby monitoring system – a monitor, powered by Edison, that clips to a baby’s clothing and keeps track of its heart rate, breathing, and movements. Edison then transmits these details to a smart mug, which gives the parent/babysitter constant status updates (see the image below).

Edison is clearly a good choice for rapid prototyping and fun DIY projects, but Intel is probably hoping that Edison becomes the platform of choice for a whole host of commercialised smart devices.

Intel also discussed perceptual computing at its CES 2014 keynote, including the RealSense dual-camera depth and gesture sensor, but it was mostly a repeat of what had already been covered at IDF 2013.

RIP Intel smartphones

To be honest, after being so horrendously late to the party, Intel’s success in the smartphone market was always an outside bet. While Intel’s upcoming Merrifield platform will finally feature a CPU (dual-core Silvermont), GPU (PowerVR 6), and modem (LTE) that can compete with Qualcomm, it’s probably a case of too little too late. Qualcomm, ever since it released the first SoC with integrated multimode LTE modem at the start of 2012, has had the smartphone market all stitched up.

All in all, Intel’s CES 2014 presentation was very strong, and it makes me feel fairly optimistic for the future. After a couple of years of Ultrabooks and smartphones, it’s refreshing to see Intel focusing on new and developing markets, rather than trying to milk every last penny out of inveterate (server, laptop) and quickly maturing (smartphone) markets.