I spent most of last week at the Intel Developer Forum (IDF) in San Francisco, an annual event where most all of Intel’secosystem gathers to learn and discuss the latest and greatest Intel has to offer and providing glimpses of the future. At IDF, I met with Intelexecutives and technologists in 1:1′s and small group events to learn howIntel will address its many markets with its future silicon, software, technologies, services and initiatives. After scanning the “Day 1” headlines, I saw some encouragement for the PC category, but I also saw a lot of doubt around it, too. I want to analyze how I see Intel’s activities giving a lift to the PC category.
PC Category Background
I would be remiss if I jumped in directly into what Intel is doing without giving some background on the PC market. First, the PC market is around a 375M unit market that looks to be flat or have slight growth over the next few years. Most of the growth is only occurring in emerging regions and countries like China, India, Russia and Brazil. The North American and Western European markets have actually shrunk. The slight growth or flat outlook is driven by socio-economic declines and also because some consumers and businesses are delaying their purchases. Those delaying cite many reasons in research I have seen. Some don’t feel the need to buy a new PC because their old one is “good enough”. Some would rather spend their disposable income on a phone or tablet instead, which relates to the first reason. Some will only buy a new PC if it enables them to do something new, like a new kind of usage model. Whatever the reason for not having double-digit growth, Intel is making major investments to incent consumers and businesses to buy more computers at a quicker pace.
New PC Form Factors
I have been in businesses related to the PC market for nearly 25 years and never before have I seen more different PC form factors than I saw at IDF. At IDF, there were notebooks, Ultrabooks, convertibles, hybrids, flippers, tablets, all in ones, thin desktops, and a newly coined “adaptive all in one”. Intel also talked about a new category of incredibly thin notebooks, some only 10mm thick, or as thick as the iPad 1 which didn’t have a keyboard. This new incredibly thin notebook will be powered by Intel’s new Haswell-based processors. It is also planned to deliver the same compute performance in half the power which enables thinner notebooks, because you won’t need as large a battery. Some pundits have criticized all of these form factors in the rallying cry of “confusion”, but I say let Darwin’s Law prevail. We will all see which form factors stick and which ones don’t. It’s not like there hasn’t been millions spent on primary in-home and business research- there has. These form factor experimentations serve to press the issue on whether you will buy a new PC or tablet. Rarely do combination products win over purpose-built products, but big winners like mini-vans show that when they hit, they hit big. Intel is making huge investments to drive that experimentation.
New PC Interaction Models
First, Intel is betting big with capacitive touch and Windows 8 on almost all PC form factors. Intel is making large investments in touch display manufacturers like Wintek, TPK, HannsTouch and Cando. By making the investments earlier in the year, Intel will accelerate touch so that most PC form factors will have it by 2013 and at a decent cost. Next, Intel is investing in what I consider a Google Voice or Siri-like interaction model with a company called Nuance. Nuance is behind most voice technologies including Dragon and Apple’s Siri. With Dell, Intel will be launching soon a beta version on the XPS 13 and shortly thereafter with other OEMs. What I like abut this technology is what I don’t like about Siri, in that it is host based, meaning I don’t have to have the cloud available and it is very quick.
Intel is also investing in machine vision, or put simply, using the PC’s camera to identify what it is looking at and then contextually deciding what to do. This includes things like a secure facial or palm-vein login to remove passwords or a Kinect-like near-field air gestures to play games or manipulate objects in the air for commercial applications.
Intel has tied this up in what they call their Perceptual Computing SDK(software development kit) to incent developers to write cool and useful apps. If that’s not incentive enough, Intel is offering $1M in prizes for application developers. This all makes a lot of sense given the PCs superior performance to be able to handle all of these interactions locally, and not in the cloud. The PC needs to bring cutting edge user models to the platform and it now gets its chance.
Removing PC Wires
Look at the back of your PC right now. If you are trying to get some “real” work done, your notebook is probably connected to a bunch of wires. As I write this, I have my notebook connected to multiple cables: HDMI, network, VGA (cough), USB keyboard, USB mouse, USB Neat scanner, and power. It’s a total mess. Intel wants to remove all of these cables through wireless docking. So now imagine just laying your notebook down and everything is connected. This is not just some engineering pipe dream as the underlying technology has already been developed. The technology is called WiGig and it can operate at a max speed of 7mbps, nearly 10X the fastest WiFi network today. Given its speeds, it not only carries traditional network data, but video data to displays and even data from mass storage devices that are nearby. This then enables the removal of most physical ports, which enables even thinner notebooks. One reason phones and tablets are so convenient is their lack of cables and the PC is just about to get it.
Ten Day Connected Standby
Accelerated PC Growth?
The next year will determine the long term growth of the PC category. Only after a year, will Windows 8-based, super-thin, touch-based with 10 hour connected standby devices have been in the market long enough to get a sense of how buyers will react. Yes, we will get an initial indication during this year’s holiday season, but I don’t expect too many metro-based apps to be there. I believe that if Microsoft can enable a robust ecosystem for Metro starting in October 2012 and Intel can accelerate their Perceptual Computing ecosystem, the PC market has the chance to get to back double-digit growth. History has shown clearly that by successfully introducing new usage models with new form factors and doing it significantly better than it was done before there has been large market growth. Think for a second about a future 10mm thick, full performance notebook with connected standby that can swivel around to be used as a tablet and also get your work done on your 32” display with a keyboard and trackpad. Securely logging in takes a wave of the palm or a glance at the notebook. Does this sound appealing? Of course it does and that’s what Intel is investing billions in. Do you still think the PC category is dead? Think again.