Rupert Goodwins' IDF Diary

Updated: Rupert takes flight for San Jose and the excitement of another Intel Developer Forum - including the joys of California-style gambling and a 'Brit pub' dinner

Monday, 17/02/03
It's Intel Developer Forum time again. Intel, always assiduous in such matters, invites a journalist or so from all those enlightened publications which cover the chip world, and once again the ZDNet UK lot falls upon me. Even Intel's getting a bit worried by this by now -- it's the third time in a row -- and tries quite hard to get someone else from the big Z to do the jaunt. But nobody seems to want to spend four days in San Jose writing about chips. So it's down to me, and my ability to cope with Monday morning... Travelling's changed since I was a kid. Once, driving to London from Plymouth was an expedition calling for preparations roughly on a par with Columbus pushing back the frontiers of knowledge. Packing started days beforehand, with every item carefully considered for inclusion through a process of judgement, appeal and counter-appeal that only stopped just short of the House of Lords. Now, it's a few shirts thrown into a bag, together with the standard collection of gadgets and a toothbrush. I spend far longer loading up the laptop with the really important things in life -- VPN access for the work network, a word processor and getting on for 12 gigs of MP3s. Thank heavens for 100-megabit ethernet: one day I really must buy an iPod. The story now assumes the shape of an exam question. Turn your papers over and begin. Question one. The flight is at eleven. Chummy lives an hour and a quarter away from Heathrow, pretty much door-to-door by the sumptuous luxury of la ligne sous-terrain Pique a Deli. Check-in is scheduled to take two hours. When should he leave? Before answering, the candidate is advised to consider the international situation (tanks outside Terminal One), the current state of London's infrastructure (congestion charging: oui! Half the tube network working properly, if at all: non!) and the habitual disorganisation of Chummy. The correct answer is, of course, 6 a.m., thus allowing a couple of hours for unforeseen delays. And, of course, the gods will dictate that there is none. There's barely time to blink before sleep-deprived Chummy is fuzzily deposited on the other side of check-in, wandering through the enormous cavern of retail that the airport seems to have become in his absence. I've never seen anything quite so insistent outside Vegas -- it is possible to find a seat without becoming lost in the glistening petrified forest of duty-free opportunites, but you have to be gifted with the innate global navigation skills of an albatross. I fail, but fortunately the array of consumer goods on offer is so hideously priced and garishly displayed that even in my weakened state I have to run away, rushing headlong in a random direction. I find myself in a dusty corridor, watched with some sympathy by a security guard. He inspects my boarding pass and tells me that I qualify for the Servisair Executive Lounge. Blimey! And it's just over there! Cor! This leads to some rumination on my part. I'd better try and be executive. So I read the Financial Times, break out the laptop and looks as if I'm really worried about the state of the markets. But try as I might, I can't find any Internet connection (which I don't really want but suspect I might sensibly use), yet am confronted at every turn by the Executive Lounge's vast array of free executive booze (which Chummy does really want, but suspects that even by his rather louche standards getting stuck in at 8 a.m. may be going it some). I compromise, have a Bloody Mary (well, it is breakfast), tell the laptop to play a random selection of music files, and give up on the search for the Internet connection. Which is a shame: I quite fancy chatting to the production desk and videostreaming the drinks cabinet back to them as they cope with the rigors of kicking the Web site into life on a Monday morning. But why no network access? It's not as if it's hard to get ADSL in West London, and five of the bottles of the better tipples would easily pay for a wireless access point. Ah well. Nothing to do but write the first entry for the Intel Diary, and perhaps consider making sure the mortal remains are well equipped to cope with the rigours of transatlantic flight with an extra-vigorous helping of Vitamin C. Now, was it orange juice or tomato juice that was most loaded with the health-giving ascorbic acid? And isn't it true that a modicum of ethan-1-ol in the mixture is very good for promoting absorption across the stomach lining? Can't be too careful with air travel these days. Tuesday 18/02/03
You'll already have read the report from our American colleagues about the marketing and technical thrust of the IDF's first keynote. What doesn't make the news is the ritual nature of the affair, and all the peculiar things that happen when an engineering company gets involved in showbusiness. It's a mixture of school assembly, religious revival and TV chat show, with a rather chummy sense that audience and showmen are all in it together. Imagine a huge auditorium, more shed than meeting space, with thousands of chairs beneath TV studio style lights, speakers and special effects projectors. At the front is the stage, which this time looks not unlike one of the later Dr Who sets: there are a number of featureless ten-foot-high towers at the back made from curved panels that reflect camera flashes from the audience in a distracting shower of light whenever something interesting happens. We discover later that the towers are not what they seem. On bounds Pat Gelsinger, Intel's chief technology officer, to kick things off. He's been to 12 of the 13 IDFs to date, he reminds us, and perhaps it shows. He normally has the enthusiastic, no-nonsense demeanour of a youthful teacher at a minor public school who's good at his subject and knows it, carrying the boys along by charisma underpinned with a strict no-fools policy. This time, he's looking a little gaunt, his cheekbones unhealthily prominent under the lights. But then, how bouncy can you be when you have to start off an IDF? You have to say things like "It's all about computing" to thousands of engineers, who may already have guessed. You then have to say "Convergence. It's great!" and mean it. The theme of this IDF, Gelsinger continued, was CCC -- Computing, Communications, Convergence. Unfortunately, most engineers are keen on science fiction and would know Harry Harrison's masterpiece Space Rats Of The CCC, which is a satirical mickey-take of every Independence Day/Starship Trooper cliché under the sun. CCC stands for Cosmic Camel Corps, and it was with this image still firmly in my head that I watched Gelsinger introduce Intel's biggest cheese, Craig Barrett. There is a short burst of gentle ragging -- Barrett has a horse called NASDAQ, on which you probably wouldn't put your money just at the moment -- and then it's into the main event. Most reports of Intel keynotes will pull out the carefully honed key phrases. Intel predicts growth, new technology sectors, continued importance of research, and so on. That's why the phrases are there. But the tone is harder to get across, and this was a very low-key affair. "We are still optimistic about the future," Barrett said, as if there was some doubt that he might be. Graphs appeared on the video screens at the back of the set, one showing IT spending since 1962. A slow climb turns into a mighty surge in the 90s, and then collapses in 2000. It heads towards the deck for another couple of years. And then, as if by magic, it resumes its upwards climb at the end of 2003 as if nothing had happened. A small note in brackets says (predicted) at this point. Hm. More figures appear from analysts, forecasting growth of 4-7 percent, "but I'm not subscribing to any of these," said Barrett. When I get up in the morning, he said in a tone of voice that just hinted at the idea that it wasn't his favourite activity any more, I'm sometimes optimistic, sometimes pessimistic. But it's mostly optimism. If this is the key idea that Intel wants us all to carry around during our days at the forum, it's rather unsettling. The saviour of us all will be the Internet. Oh, and mobile phones. There then follows a snappy video of lots of people in far-off places like Thailand, Vietnam, Australia and France saying "Technology, it's super," to a retro 70s synthesiser soundtrack. There's always a short video in the middle of the first keynote, and I've never worked out why. This is a classic of its kind: relentlessly optimistic, feelgood and empty: it has a computer graphic that looks like the Earth being bombarded with meteors, which can't be right. Barrett then warmed to his theme that the Internet is fab. Never mind the details, feel the numbers! A billion users by 2006! The Japanese can get 100 megabits per second delivered to their home! The Russian railway system has a billion items in its inventory! For a happy moment, we're all back in 1998 where made-up numbers alone guarantee future prosperity. Everyone's incredibly excited, said Barrett. The only place where technology is considered passe is the US. And what will rescue us, and bring the global sense of excitement back to its home? Here, the story gets even fuzzier. A picture of a planar transistor pops up, next to an original IBM PC and a screenshot of the first Yahoo! home page. "Each led to the other, but the inventors of each had no idea that would happen." The cellphone is as revolutionary as the PC. The unspoken conclusion is that Intel has no plan beyond making the bits and seeing what happens: we don't know what will come about, but trust us. It'll be wonderful. The ritual now demands the solemn invocation of Moore's Law -- which given that it lies at the very heart of Intel is fair enough. Up pop the graphs of prediction versus actual results, and once again the sheer magic of the numbers is considered enough. Silicon technology is anti-inflationary, said Barrett. It does more for less each year. Given that the economists are currently biting their nails over anti-inflation -- the three Ds of debt, deflation and depression -- this little bon mot left over from the wonder years of the 90s sits uncomfortably in the mind. But don't worry. If we've had Moore's Law then it must be time for the practical demonstrations of fab new technology! It's now that the strange pillars at the back of the set come into their own -- the one on the far left silently turns, revealing a lab bench packed with goodies. I half expect Craig Barrett to say "You could have won this!" in the manner of Ted Rodgers teasing Beryl from Crewe, but instead he invites a couple of Intel lab guys onto the stage and they show off their wares. It's good, meaty stuff involving phase-shift amplitude modulation of a laser, and they then shove a digitized Pat Gelsinger, shown riding last year's Segway, through a large roll containing five kilometres of optical fibre. Round of applause, on to the next one. It gets better. A Computational Nanovision Researcher pops up -- impressive title, notes Barratt -- who turns out to be an even more impressive Teuton with an impeccable Dr Strangelove accent. Horst Haussecker clearly loves his work and takes it very seriously: he's involved in building machines that render Intel's very tiniest components visible. These distant cousins of the electron microscope have the problem that at the level you can see nanometre-sized features there's a huge amount of video noise obstructing the picture. "Looks like the Milky Way," said Craig about one very noisy picture of a tiny device. "Yes," said Horst, "But much smaller." Then came demos of Newport, the new mobile platform for 2004. It was a tablet with a rather nice removable keyboard, but also had what Intel called 'closed-lid' computing. This was a small LCD set into the outside of the case, together with a couple of buttons: the idea is that if you get email via wireless you can read it and send stuff back without having to open up the computer. Why you wouldn't want to do that on your cellphone via Bluetooth -- and why anyone would leave their portable computer on all the time -- was not covered. Onwards! Here's Marble Falls, a desktop technology that does dual independent audio and video channels. That's two screens at once, in layman's language. The demo for this was rather gruesome, showing how medical experts from around the world had collaborated on head surgery for the separation of conjoined twins. The most interesting bit -- on the screen without the detailed model of the inside of a skull -- was a rather fractal knowledge model. You clicked on an idea, represented as a point on a circle of connected ideas, and it expanded into its own circle, bringing with it a more detailed breakdown of the underlying concepts. These had names like "Multiple Birth", "Heart Physiology" and "Children's Hospitals" -- although I still can't work out what "House of Lords" and "Robbery" were doing there. The final part of an Intel keynote demonstration is the ritual humiliation of a very bright, very young engineer. Our fall guy this time was showing off real-time video editing, and threw together an MTV clip of him and some dancers doing their stuff in front of tumbling multicoloured polygons. And look, you can put it on a handheld video player, or send it down an ADSL line. The show's closing number was a sneak peek at the trailer for the new Matrix videogame, which apparently bridges the gap between the Matrix II and Matrix III movies. It looked very swish, and was all done on Intel processors. So that's nice. But no, we couldn't take the video file away with us. I was once again reminded of the Cosmic Camel Corps, and walked out into the San Jose sunlight with a head full of surreal images and the deep desire to get stuck into some real design engineering. Wednesday 20/2/03
If you've never been here, San Jose might seem like a romantic, exciting destination. There's even a song about it. It has its good points --- the weather is almost always lovely, the people are friendly and there are plenty of really nice places north, south, east and west of here. But San Jose itself is vast and unfocused --- there's no heart around which the city revolves. This is a problem for Intel, which has to feed and entertain the vast hoards of imported journalists: there aren't many places in the area that can keep a bunch of cynical hacks happy for any length of time. Hence our mixed experiences of evenings out in Silicon Valley The first night, we were all bussed to a place called Dave And Buster's, which lives in a giant shopping mall somewhere between San Jose and infinity. Dave and Buster's is a bit like a TGI Friday, only enormously bigger and with a gaming theme: it has acres of pool hall, multiple independent sports bars and a place almost, but not quite, like a Las Vegas casino. This being California, you can't gamble for money: instead, you convert a pile of dollars into tokens or a swipe card and then set out to the fruit machines, shove ha'penny machines, various test-your-strength or ball-chucking games. The usual stuff you'd expect to find on Southend Pier. But when you win, there's a mighty clacking and out spews a stream of paper tickets. The first time this happens, you look on in awe. There are hundreds of the things! Huge paper cups are provided to collect them: the exchange rate seems to be around a dollar spent accrues you a thousand tickets. But what then? Ah, you go to the Winners Enclosure to swap your enormous pile of woodpulp winnings for actual goods. These start at around 1,200 tickets for a four-inch tall cardboard cut-out of Michael Jordan, and head rapidly north from there. As far as we could work out, any hint of gambling was safely avoided: you couldn't reinvest your winnings, and the conversion rate of dollars to goods rivalled investing in a dot-com as a very silly thing to do with your money. The place also completely messed up my ability to correctly judge ages. For example, in California you cannot drink until you're 21. Yet the place was rattling with splendidly drunken kids --- or so it seemed to me. And the whisky on offer said 12-year-old Macallan on the label, but my misguided tastebuds insisted I was committing infanticide on a mongrel with each swallow. It was the jetlag, I guess, or the culture shock. Brits shouldn't expect to get the chance to experience the Dave and Buster's unique atmosphere anytime soon. The company is proud of its international reach: around 30 places in the US, and three outside --- Mexico City, Toronto and Taipei. Last night, it was the Britannia Arms "English Pub". Run by a painfully convivial Essex expatriate who'd fled Colchester 20 years ago, it had all the traditional British accoutrements --- ice hockey sticks on the wall, trestle tables everywhere --- and pub grub that more than accurately recreated the delights on offer in Essex pubs in the 1980s. There was 'shepherds pie' that looked positively post-shepherd, chicken which resembled a recent cartoon hero, Spongebob Squarepants, and a trifle that brought back memories of childhood birthday parties and their inevitable consequences. There was a red phone box outside, albeit without a phone: we briefly considered making it more authentic but good sense prevailed. But that was the high point of the evening. San Jose may be in the centre of Silicon Valley, but it's a tough place for a decent night out. Thursday 20/02/03
The day passes sensibly --- a technical session here, a keynote there -- but the spirit of Intel Developer Forum Spring 2003 is parsimonious. A passing press relations officer rather smugly says that "negative reports are running at under 1 percent internationally," but my fellow journalists are of the opinion that this is because there's almost nothing going on. What have we learned? A couple of new code names --- but the meat is absent. Prescott: no numbers. Centrino: to be launched in three weeks, but no figures, no price, nothing tangible. Hm. A rumour surfaces that the Germans have managed to benchmark something that should not be benchmarked, and AMD has set up shop in a nearby hotel to show off a chip that won't be on anyone's shelves for a while, but by and large it's a drab day. Not that there aren't oddities. For most of the week, a large coach has been parked outside the hotel. It has satellite dishes, various aerials and a rather X Files demeanour: emblazened on one side is the word "Echelon". Is the US' much vaunted electronic espionage network a bus? Nah. Turns out its a mobile WiFi demonstration unit --- a hot spot on wheels --- and it's offering tours of San Jose's wireless connectivity. The evening promises more. It's Meet The Engineers night, which I managed to enliven last time by wandering around in a shirt covered in soy sauce. This time, I keep the clothing pristine. The event takes place in San Jose's TheTech, a science museum dedicated to innovation. Although the place is unashamedly aimed at prepubescent kids, it has more than enough fantastic exhibits to keep a very post-pubescent Goodwins happy as he wanders around. There's a microscope with all of Intel's processors underneath it -- you can see the transistors on the 8080 -- and a jetpack training jig for would-be astronauts. I get my face scanned in three dimensions by a mobile laser and print it out with a raytraced metal surface. I look like a vast, shiny Winston Churchill, and I am happy. The engineers are a different matter. I know that Intel are doing some very interesting things with mesh radio -- where each node on a network acts as a router, building an internet of the air without any extra infrastructure -- but the bluff, bearded coves I meet are reticent about discussing it. Frustrated, I pop out of the musem for a moment with a fellow hack, late of PC Magazine, and we take the evening air by a huge animated sculpture. Called "Science On A Roll", it's around 30 feet tall and 20 wide and consists of a bunch of pool balls ricocheting around an enormous adventure playground of metal guides, modified woks, springs, motors and things that go ker-plunk. We watch this in silence for a while, then agree that should the journalism dry up this is exactly the sort of thing we should be making. The evening ends with a showing in TheTech's Imax cinema of a movie shot from within the space station. Worth a look, even if the gorgeous shots of shuttles drifting over the Earth stir complex emotions, and it puts the daily discussions about caches, clock speeds and marketing strategies into context rather nicely.
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