Intel Developer Forum - going mobile

Day 2 in the Intel house, and we're onto the mobility keynotes. First up, Dadi Perlmutter, honcho in charge of things mobile, creator of Centrino, and one of the architects of Intel's renaissance.

Day 2 in the Intel house, and we're onto the mobility keynotes. First up, Dadi Perlmutter, honcho in charge of things mobile, creator of Centrino, and one of the architects of Intel's renaissance.

The keynote starts promisingly, with Dadi wandering past a line of vintage portable computers, starting with an Osborne Executive from 1981 – possibly the only computer on stage at an IDF without Intel Inside -- and finishing with the latest ultra-mobile PC.

He paused by a Compaq Portable, known for being the world's first IBM PC clone and for having the ergonomics of a large suitcase full of lead bricks. “Fifteen kilos. This I know, because when I was working on the 80387 co-processor project, I carried one of these home on a daily basis. I was a lot fitter back then.” As a demonstration of Intel's early fiscal probity, this is quite impressive: the 80387 came out in 1987, some four years after the Compaq Portable.

It's a good reminder, too, of how things were before Centrino. Centrino, Dadi tells us, was the first time that Intel adopted the tick-tock methodology: the tick is where the company puts an old design onto a new, smaller process, followed up the next year with the tock of a new design on that process. That minimises the risk – one major innovation at a time – while driving both aspects of processor performance improvement.

Then things get a bit more frustrating. Dadi reminds us of Intel's “four vectors” of mobile computing, the four things that the company thinks are most necessary to improve: performance, battery life, connectivity, form factor. Then he flashes up the results of global user surveys. Three of the four are indeed at the top of what the punters want, but the form factor is deposed to number five. In at two, just under performance, is data protection.

Interesting. Not so much that this is near the top of the customers' concerns – ever lost or dropped a laptop? -- but that it's flagging up something that Intel's never talked about before. So, Dadi, what is the company doing? “We'll tell you more about that at a later IDF” - and he moves on to talk about form factors and performance. Hey, unfair.

Mind you, there's then another first for an IDF keynote, as he makes a willy joke on stage. It's a rather convoluted willy joke, to be sure, all about women knowing the real importance of size and what you do with it, and the audience takes a little time to process it. Still, in keeping with the tick-tock methodology, I expect the joke to be told quicker next time and after that, a new willy joke, just as quick.

More frustration: there's a passing mention of Nehalem (the 45 nanometer tock to Penryn's tick, due out next year). Some versions will have eight cores with multithreading - “so sixteen threads are coming to notebooks”. This will need new power management, Dodi says. At last, details! “And we'll talk about that at a future IDF.”

He moves on to talk to Cisco about 802.11n, and I move on to chewing my virtual beard. It wouldn't be so bad if I could get online to either blog about this or check to see if there's more information, but the wireless network in the auditorium has mysteriously died.

I look up from trying once again to connect to see Dodi gesturing to five laptops in the corner of the stage, “All showing live video over 802.11n. See, no problem even with all these streams”.

Coincidence?

And that's about that for Dodi's keynote, except for a video of lots of partners saying how exciting it was to be working with Intel on WiMax. Some of them let that excitement get the better of them: a burly Australian says “The WiMax horse is out and racing around the track, and there's not another horse in sight”. It's no good wishing the 3G-G away, cobber, nor its HSDP hay.

By now, your correspondent is not in a good mood. This is a problem with IDFs when a particular strand is in the silent period between tick and tock; the keynotes just don't swing.

But it's time for the Ultra Mobility keynote. Dadi leaves the stage and, with the formal inevitability of a Noh play, we have to watch a video of hip young attractive dudes integrating hip tiny attractive devices with their hip young lives. You can watch this video now in your own head, no download required: chicks shopping while looking at a tiny box, alternative dudes in open-top cars navigating to friends via a map on a tiny box, happy, laughing people – some with goatees, sunglasses, and tribal tattoos – clustered around a tiny box, pointing.

Anand Chandrasekhar, general manager of all things hip and tiny at Intel, takes the stage, and immediately opens the jamjar of reality to unleash the hornets of fact. 25 percent of Internet traffic is now social networking. A billion subscribers. Eight billion pages viewed a day. And none of it is on portable devices: 61 percent of mobile phones that can browse the Net have never been used for that. “The hand-held mobile experience to day is not great”.

Amen to that, brother. Sing it out.

And there are figures for this, too. Intel's been doing usability research: visiting 57 of the most popular web sites and navigating three levels down from the index page, using seven different platforms, and counting the errors. Windows with IE6 – no errors. Windows with Firefox – under ten errors. A UMPC running Linux, something over twenty. But then we get to an Internet tablet and sixty, a phone with over 120, and a PDA with 140.

This is reality. You know it. I know it. And Intel knows it, and is doing something about it.

Unfortunately, exactly what is going to be a secret until – you've guessed it – future IDFs. There is some sensible discussion about Flash as a cross-platform magic bullet. There's a gratifying demonstration of the Silverthorne future processor (due out in around six months) using tiny sips of power to do real grown-up x86 computer tasks. There's a 74x143mm motherboard. And, praise the gods, a bit of love for 3G – a partnership with a company to develop 3G modules for Intel's mobile strategy, with working product already.

There's also Linux love. Lots of Linux love. Here's noted spaceman and penguin fancier Mark Shuttleworth, here on his birthday! Tell us about Ubuntu's mobile strategy, Mark! (Actually, Anand said “Can you talk to that?”: a new and unwelcome linguistic development at Intel). Linux is a fantastic source of raw materials, apparently.

Now here's Al Ramadan from Adobe, talking about the Adobe Integrated Runtime and its ability to run Flash applications outside the browser on Windows, Apple and Linux. It'll be on mobile Internet devices the same day as it launches on the desktop – in 2008. Everything's happening next year.

Mark Shuttleworth then demonstrates AIR on a handheld device, selecting a movie to watch from a set of channels. As the camera zooms in, he selects – but no movie. “I can't make up my mind, they're all so good!” he ad-libs. It's this sort of rapid adaption to circumstance that's Ubuntu's secret weapon.

And, at last, some tempting slivers about the future. The Moorestown platform, coming after Silverthorne, is going to take half as much space as Silverthorne, half as power when running – and ten times less when idle. It'll integrate video encoding and decoding, a memory controller and graphics with the main core. The support chip is now called a communications hub, and knows all about solid state storage. And that's all they're saying.

“But here's a design concept for what people will be able to do with Moorestown” says Anand, whipping something out of his pocket. The future... is a foot-long iPhone?

To the south, in the distant hills of Cupertino, a strange noise can be heard. It's hip young dudes, having a laugh. Actually, I'd like one: next IDF, eh?

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