It's Intel Developer Forum time again! This year, the Spring IDF is in San Francisco, always a romantic city. I'm not feeling very romantic as I had to fly on Valentine's Day, but the city is en fete due to the recent decision to allow gay marriages. My taxi takes me past City Hall, where huge queues of very happy people are waiting to tie the knot. I remember one Comdex in Vegas where Microsoft offered to pay for anyone who wanted to get hitched by an Elvis impersonator -- I'm not quite sure Intel will rise to the same heights.
Intel Developer Forums mean many things to me -- chatting to engineers, unpicking substance from spin, catching up on a whole load of technologies, that sort of thing. But right now, two days before it kicks off, IDF means just one thing: new shirts. There are lots of shops that do couture for the portly over here, and thanks to Uncle Sam's enlightened policy of revaluing the dollar at tuppence ha'penny I can refresh my wardrobe with minimal pain.
I pop into a Big And Tall shop near to the hotel. My clothing advisor for today is Jim, a remarkably tall chap with a goatee and only the slightest hint of the Fast Show in his careful mannerisms. We pass over the Spring Collection at some speed -- fluorescent tangerine might be just the thing for the West Coast, but it would stand out a bit on the Holloway Road -- and settle in for a long browse in the more staid meadows of muted blues and dark greens.
"What brings you here?" he asks, at length. "Intel," I say.
"Oh," he says, while searching for a long-sleeved version of a rather nice charcoal grey number. "So, their broadband wireless strategy for the home -- do you think it makes sense?"
This sort of thing never happens in M&S.
Another shop near the hotel is Comp USA -- the nearest British equivalent is PC World -- and purely in the interests of research, you understand, I find myself there performing multiple dollar-to-pound conversions in my head while looking at a huge array of high-tech consumer goodies. I use the new fast algorithm for this, divide by two and add a smidgeon, and the results are gratifying. Clearly, my fellow Europeans at IDF are a similarly conscientious and mathematically gifted lot, as the place is heaving with familiar faces also furrowed in concentration. Many are also keen weightlifters, from the evidence of the massively laden carrier bags they selflessly heft from the place. It's good to see such dedication.
At first, I think that retail electronics is just as different from its UK counterpart as is clothing: I chat to some of the assistants, and they're keen, knowledgeable and efficient. But then I start to have my doubts. I too have given in to the urge to help out the US' trade deficit and have set my sights on an iPod. I can't see any around -- although there are masses of accessories -- so I ask a passing, gonk-haired assistant on the camera desk.
"Yes, certainly", he says. He stands there. "Err…", I say after a while. "Yes," he says. "John over there has the keys to the iPod room." Ten minutes later, John is still over there, locked in a fierce debate with a punter over the AppleCare insurance package. In those ten minutes, my assistant has also repeatedly tried to sell me the same thing. I listen politely, and deploy my best, Dixons-honed "no, thank you."
Later, I'm standing in the queue -- sorry, in line -- at the checkout, clutching my prize, which John finally extracted from the Fort Knox-certified iPod storage zone. From nowhere, my sales assistant materialises. "Can I ask you one last time to reconsider the AppleCare package?" "No!" I say. "Look, do the maths! It makes no sense!"
He sighs. "Fair enough," he says. He glances around, and lowers his voice. "I wouldn't buy it myself. They make us do these things. That's why I stopped selling Apple stuff. I can't stand it. I really can't. But you asked me for the iPod, so I had to try."
Awww. Nasty Apple. Nice assistant. I nearly caved in and bought it on the spot.
Time to get registered. I know the score: I've been here before, so I set off confidently to the Moscone Conference Centre where the Forum is to happen. I get there, to find the signs up saying "Moscone Welcomes The 64th Annual Dental Hygiene And Floss Operatives Convention". Um. Well, that's the North Hall. Perhaps it's in the South Hall. Picking my way past an ice rink, museum and giant indoors carousel that have sprung up in the nearby gardens since my last visit -- San Francisco is an exceptionally mutable town -- I get to the South Hall. Tumbleweeds blow across the empty atrium. Fear sets in.
A passing floor buffer, perched atop a polishing machine the size of a small bus, puts me right. "You want Moscone West. A block over." By now, it's raining. A lot. Last time, there was no Moscone West, there was merely a decrepit block of shops and flophouses. Now there is a giant gleaming glass building. Many of the previous residents are still on the street, though: I have never been petitioned for money by mendicants so often. Every ten paces, a panhandler appears from the shadows and rattles a cup under my nose -- one in five turns out to be an AMD marketeer, however, thrusting promotional material at me, and after a while it becomes easier to distinguish the two tribes. (More on AMD's Intel-related activity later)
At last, I'm registered. IDF proper kicks off tomorrow but as the global brotherhood of IT journalists is hereby assembled, Intel has to do something with us. So we have an intensive briefing on some of the key technologies to be covered this time. I've covered the briefing already but there were lots of fun bits on the side. For example, one demonstration of Intel's projection display technology was carried out by the spitting image of Bob Carolgees, the kid's TV entertainer best known for his Spit The Dog puppet. However, this chap had the kind of frightening intensity that only the true specialist can muster: it quite put the projectors to shame.
A variety of pictures were shown on the demo unit, each demonstrating an aspect of the technology's wonderfulness; each seeming more and more surreal. A giant eagle's head appeared, its eye fixed hungrily on the audience. Bob poked it with a big pointer, and I half-expected him to vanish in giant talons. "Those browns," he said. "They are unmatched." Then an enormous bowl of fruit: "The raspberries are highly saturated," he said, lovingly. I defy any among us to utter those words in high seriousness. Another food scene, showing a quite delicious range of toothsome nibbles and a glass of wine the size of a church font. "This is my favourite," said Bob. "It brings together all the things I really love." Mmm. I thought. Me too. "Look at the rendering of that translucent shading, and the detail in the darker area behind the pomegranate," he continued. I made a mental note that if I were seated next to him at dinner, I would point to the ceiling and yell "Look! An eagle! Cor, check those browns!" before stealing softly away.
But my very favourite part of the briefing -- yes, more so than the Grantsdale Digital Home platform, of which Intel is so proud, and just squeezing out theintegrated photonics on silicon, which will probably prove to be the most important basic technology Intel has developed this decade -- was the cultural anthropologist. It wasn't so much for the detail of what she did, although that was worthy of any number of TV documentaries, but the little asides she threw in. I got the impression that she treated the job of dealing with the Intel engineering culture as just as much an anthropological challenge as any field work, and I very much hope that at some stage in her career she can write the book about life in the silicon tribe. IDF has many powerful overtones of a tribal gathering, with Big Chiefs uttering gnomic insights, acolytes rushing about, ritual meals, and a core of deep, dark magic that drives the whole thing. And I'm not talking about the PRs' expense accounts: everything revolves around conjuring the unseeable electron and making it do our bidding.
So when our anthropologist started talking about spiritual and religious uses of technology, it seemed only natural -- despite the fact, as she stated, that we are a very secular society and hold religion very separate from our daily lives. Not so in Asia, where she pointed out that people regularly get their mobile phones blessed by a priest: anything you're going to carry around with you all the time had better not be a talisman for evil, after all. If only some of the interface designers felt that way.
I am thus heartened to find that my beloved has emailed me a link on my return to the hotel. It comes from the excellent Web site the Ship of Fools -- the voice of Christian unrest -- and covers some of the more bizarre aspects of Valentine's Day. But best of all, it includes a prayer from Rabbi Shlomo Eliyahu.
"Please, God, help me to cleanse my computer of all... evil images that spoil and interfere with my lawful work, and allow me to cleanse myself so that I may be pure of mind and may pray with a perfect heart, and that I may raise a family in true, stable love."
At last, IDF itself. Which means the first keynote, which means it's time to find out whether what everyone expects -- the 64 bit extensions to the Pentium -- are going to happen.
On the way to the show, however, there's more evidence of AMD's haunting presence. It's set up a stall on the pavement between hotel and conference centre, giving away coffee and pastries. It's got a van with AMD on the side in big, glowing letters, that drives endlessly around the block. It's picking off journalists one by one and hustling them to nearby meeting rooms. All very amusing and Nick, our very personable Intel PR minder, veers between jocular dismissiveness and gritty annoyance at each new manifestation of the mischievous monkeys. But they're not as naughty as another chip company, which manages to infiltrate a press conference and deploy fliers on the tables for an off-site meeting: there's aggressive PR and there's just taking the mickey.
Keynotes are always a mixture of tedium and fun. For a start, Craig Barrett is temporarily nicknamed "Dr T" -- Doctor Transformation -- by warm-up man Pat Gelsinger. I assume that's not a reference to the specialist shop of the same name on the Euston Road that sells feminine clothing in larger sizes for gentlemen who prefer to be ladies: we are however in San Francisco, and nothing can be taken for granted.
That's not the only potential reference to the city in the keynote. This is the first time back in SF after a long stint in San Jose, the dullest city west of the Rockies: "It's a lot more pleasant today than in the last couple of years," says Barrett. He may be talking about the economy picking up, of course, but was there really a need to talk about "opportunities for growth" quite so much? This is after all the part of the world that gave us the word "afog" to describe those moments when life goes horribly wrong: "another effing opportunity for growth".
Sometimes keynotes not only border on the trite, they forcibly invade it and set up a puppet government. This time, we have a very important banker from Morgan Stanley telling us that "IT is very important in finance". Who knew? Aha -- no, he's busy saying that Itanium is very fast and very nice, and he's buying a whole bunch of them.
Here's a guy from Ford Motors, saying that the Itanium is very fast and very nice, and has helped him make his new muscle car in two years rather than four. He's buying a whole bunch, too.
And then there's a video of Stephen Hawking, lolling in his wheelchair and talking about massive, mysterious objects that generate huge amounts of radation while swallowing everything in their path, never to be seen again. More Itaniums? Ah, no, black holes. But he does love the Itanium too -- he's got hundreds, churning through his calculations for him.
All this boosterism for the Itanium can mean only one thing: the worst-kept secret in IT is about to finally come out. Yes, the 32-bit Xeon has slipped into Transformations and come out as a whole new chip, bedecked in a nice floral print 64-bit dress. Not that it means the 64-bit Itanium is in any way less precious to Intel -- put that thought firmly from your mind, you cynic -- and everything is utterly lovely. Intel has been at the forefront of 64-bit development for a decade, so this is a perfectly natural event.
We'll all have to get used to the Xeon's new life choice, and I'm sure we'll all be very supportive during this difficult yet exciting time in its personal path of growth..
Why, here's Steve "Extensions! Extensions! Extensions!" Ballmer on the video screen, "superexcited" about it all. I'm sure Intel is just as 'superexcited' as Steve at Microsoft's role in supporting AMD's Opteron, which may just have been a factor in this turn of events.
The necessary u-turn having been made, the keynote moves smartly on as if nothing much had happened. Here's the Digital Home, divided between the Ten Foot Experience and the Two Foot Experience -- no, not a novelty Hendrix tribute band composed of giants and dwarfs but shorthand for looking at your television from the sofa or at your computer on your desk. There's superfast wireless! There are fantastic video projectors! There are no fewer than three concept PCs, all called Florence, glittering and preening in their videotastic, multifunctional, peak-user-experiential wonder.
Intel throws marvel after marvel at us: a new super mobile phone reference design, superfast photonic silicon showing a movie clip of "Skycaptain and the World of Tomorrow" over five kilometres of fibre, and as a grand climax the entry of a GIANT ROBOT CAR! Intel is sponsoring the Carnegie-Mellon University entry into the big race next month, where unmanned cars will race from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. This is a Hummer -- the US' favourite mutant jeep -- equipped with uncountable laser and radar scanners, satellite guidance, vision recognition and control systems, all topped off with a big flashing amber light. It runs a quad Itanium server backed up with heaps of Xeons: it is very very big, very very noisy and looks like nothing on earth.
It is with some gratification I note that at the end of this enormous parade of distractions, the press pack gets up on its hind legs during the post-keynote Q&A and asks about nothing except 64-bit extensions.
We know what we like.
Today's keynote is more of the same. Mike Fister, manager of Enterprise Platforms, has grown a rather exciting Mexican Bandito moustache. He gives a sterling performance promoting Itanium, only slightly miffed when Kevin Kettler, CTO of Dell, comes on and talks animatedly about those pesky 64-bit extensions and how they'll be in Dell products by the end of the year. Boy, how he goes on. And on.
It's all too much. "Say something about Itanium, Kevin," commands Fister.
"I've written my notes on my hand," says Kettler, "and I've got Itanium on my pinky." The moustache twitches, and one gets the feeling that "Take back what you said about my mother, Gringo" is not far from the surface. But all is well.
Next up is the spellcheck-defying Anand Chandrasekher, man in charge of mobile platforms. Intel has many engineers from around the globe, often with names requiring 64-bit extensions of their own, and it's quite fun to compare the 'official' nicknames that they give each other in public and on Powerpoint slides with the more informal versions that circulate after hours. Anand, who at least when I meet him wears his official status lightly and with good grace, is referred to as Kulashaker and Chunkyjumper at various times by various people. He too has follicular issues -- on his official bio page, he sports a luxurious rug of lustrous hair: on stage, he has a brutal crew cut. The reason, he explains from the off, is that he promised his team that if they hit target with Centrino sales he'd have his head shaved. It's been a good year for notebooks, and a bad one for executive hairstyles.
Later that day, I suggest to another Intel bod that they should encourage Fister to do the same with his Dirty Sanchez facial fungus, should he hit his target of making Itanium as cheap as Xeon but twice as fast. "My god. If only," is the unexpected response. On consideration, I think I like a company where the senior officers are free to behave with such tonsorial irresponsibility -- let's leave the hundred-dollar haircuts to the white shirts and sharp suits of the East Coast.
Chandrasekher gives a good show nonetheless, demoing a wide variety of wireless and mobile gadgets and fearlessly promoting the new Dothan chip despite the fact it's now so late even Intel's stopped pretending. There's a huge array of laptops on shelving at the back of the stage all displaying the Centrino logo -- are these the new army of Dothan? Not quite: they're all "Dothan ready". But it will be here soon -- a bug caught at the last stage of design verification, is all he'll say -- and the inevitable 'When will it be 64-bit?' question is batted aside with panache. Alas, the demos don't all go to plan -- another traditional IDF entertainment -- but some are simply puzzling. It's very commendable that Intel has managed to find a real live 17-year-old with a guitar who's prepared to come on at eight in the morning and talk about using technology to learn music, but between the lad's West Coast dudular incoherence and the computer's sullen refusal to do what he wanted, we're not much the wiser.
The show feels very different from previous times, and after a while mulling this over in the bar the UK hack contingent has it sussed: in the past, it's been concentrated in one place, this time it's dissipated between floors of the conference centre and other venues. We're being more carefully managed this time too: in the past, the press has been encouraged to go along to the Meet The Engineers party on the second day of the forum. This time, we're invited to a bash at Dolby Labs and not told about the engineers. Not that one wishes to be churlish; Dolby is one of Intel's new friends and is involved in getting the audio side of PCs up to professional standards, and there's plenty to talk about, but one gets the feeling that someone inside has decided it's not such a good idea to let the engineers drink lots of beer in the company of people who might write about what they say.
Still, there are always the sessions: presentations to the engineering community by Intel's own R&D teams. As usual these prove enlightening. I concentrate on wireless, and in stark contrast to the feeling we get from the official press activities there seems to be a willingness on the part of the presenters to be more frank about areas where the company is still having a lively internal debate. Following on from Pat Gelsinger's "Radio Free Intel" announcement last spring, the company has got very serious about pushing wireless standards with much attention paid to stuff still in the "we really don't know how we're going to do it" stage. This shows: the engineers giving the talks discuss the issues, cover the pros and cons of each approach and are refreshingly non-didactic about what the end results will be.
At the end of the day, I'm much more tired than usual: normally by now I'm in full swing, and bail out of the evening's activities. But then a friend calls and it would be churlish to go all this way and not catch up, and she knows this great bar in Mission with walls covered in stuffed animals, a heady mix of 70s and 80s punk, new wave and Dean Martin on the juke box, and a bloke who skateboards from seat to seat. A perfect way to balance the day.
Last day, and everyone's been Intelled out. It's my favourite day, though, because it's the R&D keynote with technical director Pat Gelsinger. Hairstyle reassuringly unchanged, he leads the faithful through yet another of his Big Visions. We are entering, he says, the Era of Tera. That slightly uncomfortable phrase -- it looks like it should rhyme, but Tera is pronounced to rhyme with cellar, not clearer, so it ends up sounding like the Era of Terror -- is his shorthand for terabytes, teraflops and terabits per second. He leads us through the three previous ages of Homo Siliconia -- the Kilo, where everything was text; Mega, when Windows popped up; and Giga, where we are now and where multimedia is king. I realise with something of a lurch that I've been there for all of them -- my early days in IT are now consigned to the rough equivalent of the Neolithic. Thanks, Pat.
It's all classic stuff. We can't make the processors much faster, they'll melt and the memory won't keep up -- which everyone knew, but it's quite something to hear it from the top in such an uncompromising fashion. Not 'we can keep squeezing stuff out', but 'that's it. We're hitting a wall'. Of course, he has an answer -- massively parallel multicore chips, supersmart cache mechanisms, photonic interconnects -- and even an example of what we'll do with all this power. On comes a bearded European who shows off real-time raytracing, where a couple of Volkswagen Beetles have been dumped in a medieval Florentine chapel and made to look very shiny indeed. It's one of those moments where you realise that what you thought were really nifty graphics in your computer games were in fact miles behind what you want -- and you want this.
But this requires -- and here the good doctor unveiled a huge rack of computers with a flourish -- 400 gigaflops of processor. He'd really like a teraflop, if it's all the same to you. And then we can play Quake on it.
The fun bit is that Pat has to systematically diss -- his word -- most of the current technologies propping up the Intel House O' Fun to make way for the bold new world. He takes one particular example, TCP/IP Offload Engines, or TOEs. These are bits of silicon that take over network packet management from the main processor, and were being heavily promoted as the best way to speed things up a while back. They didn't work very well, and Pat proceeded to demonstrate why -- the problem they fixed, processing the packets, wasn't the problem that was really there, which was moving the packets around the place. I momentarily dream of a headline, Pat Snubs TOE. At the end I ask Gelsinger why, if TOEs didn't work, they'd spent so long promoting them -- well, we've only really just done the analysis came the question-begging reply.
As I walk out of the keynote in the company of Nick, a chap in an AMD sports shirt comes up to me. "That stuff about the TOE was done ten years ago by another company, you know," he said, to the visible bristling of my PR pal -- whose sense of humour had been thoroughly tested by the AMD onslaught. Well, yes. I did know -- a long time ago I'd been involved in the design of network chips and software -- and freed from the undeniable charisma of Gelsinger's stage presence I realised that not very much new had been said. It had been very competently presented as a coherent thesis, and was all worth saying, but it left a great deal unanswered
If Intel is going to embark on a radically new direction where parallel processing is king, how will it make the transition? It's had enough trouble going from 32 to 64 bits, which is rather like learning to drive a bus after mastering a VW Beetle. Going to the parallel world will be like learning to fly a 747. But there really is nowhere else to go. The other thing I realised was that this had been the only keynote where nobody had asked about 64-bit Pentium extensions afterwards. Ya gotta love that Gelsinger magic.
Still mulling over these thoughts, I make my way to the final session of the IDF. This was all about wireless -- and the very prosaic business of testing 802.11. Intel has gone about this methodically, creating three test areas -- an office in a city, a radio-screened room and a field in the middle of nowhere -- and set about measuring everything that can be measured while the network does all the sorts of things that wireless networks do. The office is laid out like a typical American workplace with chairs, desks, partitions, walls and equipment all where it should be, but without any people.
A German voice piped up from the back of the room. "Do not people affect the radio?" Yes, said the engineer, but not very much. We've done tests and there isn't much difference with or without, so we're doing it without. "But that is not typical?" said the voice. Good point, said the engineer, and one day I'm sure we'll factor that in, but there are more important things to do first -- this in the "let's move on" tone of voice you get to recognise very quickly towards the end of the show. Our inquisitive Teuton was having none of it . "This is an office, so there must be people. And at two point four gigahertz, they will be affecting the radio." It will come, said the exasperated engineeer, whose fondness for rooms devoid of human life was clearly growing by the second. Now, if we look at this graph…
"You could use sacks of water. Possibly with salt in." said the voice. I didn't catch exactly what the engineer then said, but there was a sound not unlike that of a sack of water -- possibly with salt in -- being dragged outside.
We moved on.
As must I. I wish there was time to tell you about the evening in the Japanese restaurant where a fresh-faced young UK journalist was introduced to sashimi for the first time ("But it's RAW!"); the ongoing battle between Them Wot Smoke and Them Wot Won't Let Them; and the wake for our dear departed friend Lynne, which covered three continents linked by mobile phones and ended up with one of our number discovering the hotel sold gin and tonic by the pint. Repeatedly. Then there was the laptop with the pink satin curtains, the briefing rooms that looked exactly like the bogs at Glastonbury, and the automatic paper towel dispenser in the real loos that proudly declared itself "Motion Activated". Now there's automation for you. And if only I could repeat the conversation between a very keen British hack and a very cute American woman, that started off as a very promising chance of a pull before it drifted into politics -- yes, Iain, lots of these people really do like Dubya -- but I'm being thrown out of my hotel room in ten minutes and I haven't even packed my iPod.
Another time, perhaps. See you in Blighty.