Knights of the Round Table

Intel's developer forum proffers both close-mouthed executive talking heads and voluble back-room techies

By now, you'll have read various news reports from the Intel Developer Forum Fall 2003, the latest outing for a show that never ends. This year IDF is touring seven countries around the world, but the twice-yearly event in Silicon Valley is Intel's major interface with its developers and the world's press. It started as a way for Intel to keep the independent developers -- the engineers who designed Intel parts into products that customers paid for -- up to date and enthused: these days, with technology at the heart of economies around the world, it's a more public showcase

It is, as the locals say, an intense experience. For the journalist, it's a constant stream of keynote speeches, briefings, meetings with Intel execs and paws-on fiddling with the latest products. It's also a battle of wits: Intel wants to make sure that the news generated is entirely according to its corporate wishes. Chips shall be written about when Intel is ready to talk, and not before. This is anathema to the gathered journalists, who want to find out things that interest their readers -- and nothing is more interesting than stuff Intel wants kept quiet.

Take today's round table discussion between twenty or so assorted journos from everywhere around the world except America -- the "international media" -- and Louis Burns, general manager of the desktop division. For reasons best known to the Intel spinmeisters, this takes place a couple of hours before Burns is due to give his keynote speech, where he will reveal whatever news Intel has deemed suitable. He can't and won't let anything slip that goes against this schedule of revelations, so what's the point? "It's good for personal statements", says the press relations minder. But the personal statement that sticks in the mind is Burns' outright denial that any such chip as the Pentium 4 Extreme exists when pressed on the point by the rather louche gentleman from The Inquirer. Two hours later, Burns is on stage singing the praises of -- you guessed it -- the Pentium 4 Extreme.

Of course, no actual lies have been told. It's all been played by the rules: the hack asked about the Pentium 4 Extreme, and Burns said, "that's not the name of any product I know about." True. The product's real name is an exercise in marketing baroque: the Pentium 4 with HT (Hyperthreading Technology) Extreme Edition. Even Burns can't quite remember how it goes when he announces the chip, and Intel's Web site doesn't bother with the long version. Honour is satisfied on both sides.

Meanwhile, the ghost of Christmas yet to come hovers on every corner: Prescott, the first of the next generation of desktop chips, is due any day now. Just not today. Everyone asks about Prescott at every opportunity, and the answer is always the same: "It's on schedule and will arrive when we said it would arrive, which is the fourth quarter of 2003. Then we'll talk about it." The only occasional nod to reality is the adjective "late" added before the word "fourth". It's a fine game, and entertains everyone. It's just that it doesn't quite feel like a good reason to travel half way around the world.

But there's another side to IDF, one truer to the original intent of the event. In hundreds of hours of sessions, Intel engineers and their friends from other companies talk to the developers about bits, bytes, decibels and hertz. Here, the army of people mobilised on the ground of actual product development discuss what works and what doesn't, which future technologies look promising and why some ideas aren't quite panning out as planned. There's tangible excitement, in part because engineers just can't help getting effusive with people who understand and care about the same things. Mostly, though, there's a lot of real information.

It's this collegiate exchange of ideas that gives the best feeling for what's going to happen next. For example, Intel is big on wireless these days and rightly so. Very clever silicon translates directly into very effective radio, but it's easy to lose sight of what will actually work in a sea of wishful marketing predictions. When you sit in on a talk about exactly how a five-quid chip will cope with ten gigahertz signals, you find out whether this will fit into a handheld device running from batteries in the near future -- and thus whether the next generation of wireless networking will really let all those lovely ideas of permanent, high-bandwidth Internet connection come true. If Intel's developers don't get this right, then Intel won't sell its chips and the whole shebang shudders to a halt: it's where the real world intrudes.

And that sort of insight really is worth crossing the world to meet.

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