Intel's exotic adventures

comment Intel's focus on silicon technology shouldn't blind it to the differing needs of people worldwide, says its own researchers.

commentary Exotic. That one word sums up Intel's problems and promises.

At the warm-up sessions for the Intel Developer Forum, that word came up many times in many contexts as the company primed the assembled company of international journalists for the big game of the next three days. Directors of research, development engineers and experts from deep within the corporate machine got up on stage and powerpointed through presentation after presentation, coquettishly revealing just enough to get us gawping without giving us the ammunition to ask difficult questions. Fair enough--it's Intel's show and there's lots to get through.

It's worth remembering what Intel is about. The company sells lightly spiced silicon--the second most common element on earth -- and is dedicated to proving that anything more exotic elements can do, silicon can do better. Each successive presentation highlighted a market that Intel intends to attack in the near future, with the emphasis on how the Intel way with silicon was better than the accepted wisdom of how it's been done in the past.

Wireless networks operating at impossible frequencies with incredible bandwidths need to be made from gallium and indium and other peculiarly difficult exotica, say those who specialise in such things. Nonsense, says Intel. Silicon chips that do all that, and can be churned out by the million.

High definition displays that fill a wall with gorgeous video need physics stretched to the limit, millions of microscopic mirrors arrayed by nanotechnology or hyper-expensive specialist LCDs, says that industry. Nope, Intel replies. Take a silicon chip, smear it with the appropriate gunk to create a display, and mass-produce the results cheaper and better than any alternative.

Or take the world of fibre optics, where you can squeeze gigabits a second down hair-thin glass threads stretching kilometres. You merely have to spend many thousands of pounds on the exotic devices needed to turn billions of pulses of electricity per second to neat little bundles of photons and back again at the far end. Nah, Intel has a better answer: you can squeeze, scratch and scrape silicon to do exactly the same job, and forget about the money. It will be so cheap, says Intel, the chips inside your PC will use it to talk to each other using light instead of slowpoke electricity.

One size fits all. By now the befuddled hacks, stuck in an airless conference room in San Francisco with rain pelting down outside and jetlag congealing within, are ready to believe that silicon mixed with Intel will take over the world: manifest destiny.

And then a still, small voice -- OK, a loquacious Australian voice -- gets up on stage and says no. Hold on. The world is far more exotic than you ever imagined, and pretending otherwise is folly.

That still small voice of Oz is Dr Genevieve Bell, a cultural anthropologist and part of a ten-person team at Intel called the People and Practices Research group. Her job is to find out how people tick. To be more precise, she goes out to visit people who may be future Intel consumers around the world, and finds out whether what they actually do is what Intel fondly imagines. For the past two years she's been living urban life in Asia, testing whether there really is an emerging global middle class, increasingly affluent and increasingly convergent, moving towards a common lifestyle. A hundred households in nineteen cities across seven countries -- India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, China, Korea, Singapore--got the Bell at the door. She came back with twenty gigabytes of digital photographs (let her in and this woman will snap the inside of your fridge, the stuff on your bedside table and the contents of your sock drawer) and a cubic yard of notes.

She's still analysing her haul, but what she's found out so far is intriguing--and as important for Intel as how to make silicon pipe light or speed data. No, people aren't the same. The USA holds the individual in the highest regard: Asia has social structures that override that. Technology there is shared--one mobile phone lives with many people, one computer is part of many people's lives. In America, technology either makes business more efficient or entertainment more accessible: in Asia, it binds people together, brings education, even merges with religious practices. This isn't an issue of disposable income: this is how people choose to live.

Even the most basic of statistics are revealing. American houses are big: 2,200 square feet on average, with many rooms per person; Asians live in less space--800 square feet, say -- shared between much larger households. An American engineer might design a wireless network to cover the average American home: the same box in Singapore could flood three families. An American mobile phone will live in the warmth of a jacket pocket: a Malaysian mobile may get dropped in a monsoon and be drowned in an instant.

There are no overriding engineering problems, she says, just those of awareness. If Intel wants to carry on growing--and have places to sell the silicon that it says will do anything the exotic technologies can do--it has to understand that what might seem like exotic human behaviour from the perspective of the West Coast is the norm for the rest of the planet. Twenty-five percent of the Earth's crust may be silicon, but a hundred percent of Intel's market is the diverse mass of humanity. Even Intel's engineers can't override that.

Rupert Goodwins is the technology editor for ZDNet UK.

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