SAN FRANCISCO: INTEL HAS LONG BEEN known for its innovations in the chip industry, whether that's churning out new processor architectures that lead to improved device form factors every other year, or upping the ante in data centre chips to give servers more power than originally thought possible and give the world's biggest businesses the clout they need to stay afloat.
Since its beginning, Intel has helped shape the technology landscape through the inauguration of Moore's Law - the prediction made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore that computing power would double every two years - which is now over 50 years old. Today, many digital electronic devices and manufacturing developments are strongly linked to the Law, whether it's microprocessor prices, memory capacity or sensors, all improving at roughly the same rate.
But, while Intel is proud of its foundations built on an observation of its co-founder that is still relevant and has ushered us forward into a more technological future, something is changing inside the company, and it seems that its attitude and focus are shifting.
This was evident at the Intel Developer Forum (IDF) which I attended in San Francisco this week. This was my third year in a row at the conference and, even though that's a relatively short amount of time compared with the length of the company, I've seen within this stretch how Intel is shifting its focus and becoming much less about the chips it makes.
For example, Intel's continued push on wearables and the Internet of Things was particularly evident at IDF last year, with wearable technology taking the driving seat in the trends leading the conference more than we've seen before. Dedicated booths lined the Moscone Centre floors, bolstering the firm's efforts to catapult us into a world of wireless, connected devices, from reference designs and products, to partnerships for smartwatches, bracelets and heart-rate monitoring headphones.
This year was no different, with more of the same and a greater emphasis on encouraging developers to make new stuff with the release of lots of new platforms. The conference centre hall was again brimming with demonstrations, proofs of concept and even startups that made it as finalists in the firm's 2014 Make It Wearable contest.
Last year Intel kicked off its annual three-day event with a keynote rich with major announcements, including a new chip architecture and a glimpse of the firm's chip roadmap and other upcoming system on chip designs that might be years away. This time was very different. There was not even one mention of Skylake, the firm's latest architecture, which it decided to unveil before the show, perhaps to take the attention away from the processor and onto other, non-chip related projects Intel is working on at the moment.
For example, the opening keynote focused heavily on Curie, Intel's Quark-powered wearable chip for IoT devices and how it could change different industries, such as sport. And there was also the announcement that Intel teamed up with Google to power Project Tango using its Real Sense 3D camera, something it would just not shut up about at IDF this year.
The lack of chip roadmap announcements in the opening keynote might be something to do with news earlier this year that Moore's Law might be showing cracks.
Intel CEO Brian Krzanich dropped a bombshell when he announced in July that the firm's shift from one transistor size to another is stretching from two to 2.5 years.
Intel has stood strongly by Moore's Law since its inception, and has adhered to its ‘tick-tock' strategy when launching new processors. (The 'tick' refers to a shrinking of the manufacturing process, while the 'tock' is an improvement of the design and architecture at the same size.)
However, Krzanich questioned this during Intel's earnings call, saying that manufacturing processes haven't advanced at the same rate as in the past.
"The [tick-tock] strategy created better products for our customers and a competitive advantage for Intel," said Krzanich. "It also disproved the death of Moore's Law predictions many times over. The last two technology transitions have signalled that our cadence today is closer to 2.5 years than two."
He added that to address this, Intel plans to introduce a third 14nm product, codenamed Kabylake, in the second half of 2016 built on the foundations of the Skylake micro-architecture but with performance enhancements. This made it clear that the firm will launch its first 10nm product, codenamed Cannonlake, in the second half of 2017.
This might suggest why we didn't have a sneak peek into Kabylake as I was expecting, but I don't think this was the only reason why Intel gave chip fabrication a back seat at IDF this year. I think the company wants to become a more all-encompassing power house like Google and Facebook. It wants to be considered one of the big boys, a world-renowned innovator and owner of everything.
But this isn't necessarily for the worse. I heard many a grumble from the old-school techies at the event about how Intel should "focus on what they do best" or "stick to what they know" and release some innovative chips, but I don't think this means that the company is losing touch with innovation, or wondering what to do next. It is merely focusing on more than processor technology in order to grow, and looking further afield towards user experiences and how it can change the lives of people directly as opposed to improving the lives of those that are privileged enough to own a PC, for example. (See the announcement of Collaborative Cancer Cloud as an example.)
Intel doesn't just want to supply the chips for other people to innovate on top of, it wants to be responsible for that innovation, to nurture it, put its stamp on it and help sell it so that people recognise how it is part of new experiences in tech. µ
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