Rupert Goodwins' IDF Diary

After 11 joyous hours in economy, Rupert touches down to discover what Intel is up to - and even gets to see a Great One

Monday 6/9/2004
It's been more than a day since I crawled out of Virgin Flight 19 into the San Franciscan sunshine, and I still can't work out whether checking-in online the day before was a good idea. On the plus side, I waltzed past the huge queues and through security in less time than it took to score a breakfast panini from the Cafe de Prix Enorme on the other side. A good two hours of messing around reduced to a few minutes of browsing the bookshops. On the non-plussed side, fellow hacks who did the traditional trick of arriving to check in at the last possible minute got rushed to the front of the queue and unforgivably upgraded, because by that time economy was full of people like me. They got 11 hours of legroom. I got a nagging feeling that I'd been too clever for my own good.

Still, here I am. The Intel Developer Forum awaits. As normal, it's running from Tuesday to Thursday; unusually, there's no big international journo briefing on the Monday. It's Labor Day, so tout SF is on a bank holiday and Intel is nowhere to be found.

Forced into tourist mode, I decide to behave accordingly. I wander down to the city's famous Fisherman's Wharf, noted for its aquarium. This has a large underground tank full of sea life: you can wander through the middle of it in a long perspex tube gawping at the surroundings. I am immediately in awe of the kaleidoscopic array of grotesque creatures that drift in all directions, staring eyes and gulping mouths mute witnesses to the strange ways of evolution. Are we really related? But enough of my fellow sight-seers: I came here to look at fish.

Later, I make my pelagic way to the world-renowned sea lion colony. Now, I've been on seal-spotting trips before. These normally mean getting on a boat, thundering through grey seas for hours to a distant isle where the captain cuts the engines and we try to drift close enough to a rocky shore before the nervous creatures catch fright and dive out of sight. Not so here. The sea lions are clustered in their hundreds on pontoons just yards away from the throng: they bask, they bark, they behave like teenage film stars. As well they might, with indefinite residency on some of the city's most expensive waterfront.

I didn't realise until the event itself that I'd never seen a sea lion defecate -- it's an unexplored niche of nature TV programming. I've certainly never seen any animal put on quite such a show of the event. The beast slipped into the water, swam up to the viewing masses, rolled onto its back, gracefully arched itself so that its flippers were out of the water and its head was underwater and pointing down at 45 degrees, waited for a moment, then let loose a torrent of liquid ordure. It was a bit like pouring a cup of coffee into a swimming pool, only with various chunky bits. I hope Intel can come up with something half as stylish and impactful over the next three days.

Tuesday 7/9/2004
We file into the Moscone Centre, ready for the first of many keynote speeches. In the bar the night before, the assembled hacks had picked over the bones of Intel's recent woes -- which are many. Delayed products, chips recalled, leadership ceded: it'll be hard to put a positive spin on the current state of the company. A couple of months before IDF, chief executive Craig Barrett had read the riot act to his senior management and followed it up with a sober memo to all hands. I've worked in companies where reality rudely intruded, and the last thing you'd want to do is have to put on a show for the world while you're still licking your wounds.

Even before the keynote kicked off, things were subdued. Last time, the stage was festooned with giant screens, risers and glittering gadgets. This time there are three rather small screens hanging from the rafters above a giant picture of a wafer shading into random coloured blocks of the sort you got when your Spectrum failed to load Jet Set Willy. The in-hall wireless network is as sullenly uncommunicative as a teenager, and even the Intel brand bottled water -- a feature of IDF for as long as I can remember -- has been replaced with off-the-shelf 'purified drinking water'.

There are many good ideas presented during the keynote, and it would be unfair to point out the ways in which they went wrong. So let's do that. It's a good idea to point out the power of broadband by picking the most successful film of all time, saying that it's had 700 million views in seven years but that with cable and DSL it could get a billion views in a year. It's a bad idea when that film is Titanium -- oops, sorry, Titanic. It's a good idea to show your commitment to developing markets by having your chief executive publicly welcome the first delegation from the Chinese government ever to visit IDF; it's a bad idea when that lets a disrespectful British journalist ask during the post-keynote Q&As how that squares with Intel's public commitment to personal rights and freedoms (top marks there to teenage wunderkind Wil Harris of bit-tech.net). It's a good idea to demonstrate how image recognition systems will let you find pictures on your computer by asking "Where is Grandma?"; it's a bad idea when you demonstrate how computers can synthesize what-if scenarios by asking "What would happen if Grandma was in the zoo?" and have the poor woman confronted by a ferocious animal. It's a good idea to remind the world about Gordon Moore, the patron saint of Intel, by having a slide showing him smiling beatifically in a blue haze; it's a bad idea if certain hacks have just come back from Chinatown where identical pictures of Chairman Mao had been heavily featured. Is this a hint?

However, in certain respects Intel's aim remains true. It is a company of geeks, and IDF is the time when it talks unto geek. Last time it wheeled in an enormous automated Hummer military vehicle filled with Xeons and Itania, laser scanners and satellite navigation, which was to take part in a race between robot unmanned vehicles. (It crashed, but not until after everything else in the race had crashed first. In IT, of course, this is state of the art). This time, the guests of honour were NASA's head of supercomputing and a shuttle astronaut: the only way you can get more nerdalicious than that is if NASA is buying 10,000 Itanium2s, calling them Project Columbia and using them to do simulations to help the shuttle return to orbit.

There is the mandatory demonstration -- in this case, the Montecito dual-core Itanium 2 -- and given the sense of relief and pride that emanates from various people afterwards, you can't help but wonder how close to the wire that one came. And then there's the tricky business of AMD showing its dual-core X86 processor to the world days before Intel decides not to do the same. "It's not a race," said COO Otellini when asked about this. It isn't? Do his shareholders know?

There were more keynotes, briefings, tech showcases and meetings throughout the day, after which your correspondent retired in a state of some confusion to his hotel room to write things up. What does it mean to be an ecosystem leader, as Intel boasted earlier? Does it mean not cleaning the bathroom for a few months? In silent sympathy with the company's aims I leave my socks on the bedroom floor and crash out

Wednesday 8/9/2004
Things are looking up. I try the 'Japanese Breakfast' in the hotel, which turns out to be a sizable chunk of salmon and enough sticky rice to give a man stamina for the most buzzword-enabled keynote Intel can contrive. Mike Magee of The Inquirer reports he's seen AMD's stretch limo -- which has been circling the convention centre ready to pick off curious journalists and give them an in-flight briefing -- moved on by the SFPD at the request of a rankled Intel executive. The police presence has replaced the rather onerous security measures of previous IDFs, where we had to walk through scanners and have our bags gone through by people in gloves, and in keeping with the city's laid-back attitude it normally comprises a couple of chaps and chapesses who spend most of their time cracking jokes and posing for the occasional photograph. It's only slightly alarming for us Brits that the plod have sidearms, although it does let us report accurately that AMD has been seen off by an armed response force.

The keynote today is a peculiar effort, concentrating on things like the digital office and the digital home. Now, I'm all in favour of digital offices -- in fact, I seem to have been working in such places since I was 18 -- but what's the alternative? Analogue? Take a memo, Ms Stevens, in longhand? There's an edgy, paranoid video where various people have their careers ruined by viruses, hackers, incomprehensible software and general systems failures. "Drowning in data but starving for knowledge" seems to be the theme: the sticky rice sits heavily in my stomach. Ah, but Intel has the solution. A quarter of a trillion dollars a year are spent on managing computer systems -- so why not take some of that money and spend it on... Intel? No, of course not. Automated, self-diagnosing and self-healing systems are the answer. There's a short demonstration of the digital office where three people videoconference about an air conditioning vent being in the wrong place, but it's not as exciting as it sounds.

Then it's on to Intel's one true shining success of late, mobile computing. Anand Chandrasekhar, head of such things, bounces onto the stage and predicts even greater things to come. Last time, he had a shaved head -- he'd promised to cut everything off if his division hit target, he said at the time -- but he's handsomely hairy this time. In fact, the new spirit of realism seems to have completely removed the Intel management's taste of outre hair dos, which is not progress. The bloke in charge of enterprise plaftorms, Abhi Talwalkar, does sport a shaved bonce but it would be bad taste to ask him if that was because he'd blown past his targets on Itanium sales. So I don't. Anyway, you can guess the idea behind wireless -- access everywhere to do anything.

As we leave the keynote, we notice a couple of people in black with backpacks. They're handing out tickets: large masts rise from the backpacks from which hang LCD screens a foot or so above the hapless publicists. I make a joke about overhead projectors, which goes down as well as you might expect. The tickets are advertising an "Event Premiere" called Under The Hood and with some sort of car theme going on. We don't know what this might be, about so we pop along.

It's a hall with benches and various people standing behind them. "What's this then?" we ask. "We can't tell you" is the answer. "You'll have to watch the briefing." After a while, we still can't work it out -- it's some sort of marketing idea, but you'd have to be another marketeer to understand. We make our excuses and leave, but not before some of our number have spotted that they could win a PDA if they take part in a Tech Trivia Challenge.

Of course, they try and of course, they are trounced by the real geeks in the room. However, a quick look at the rules reveals nothing about performance-enhancing substances: Next time the quiz kicks off, our heros are there but one of them has a Web-enabled phone in hand. This time the questions are very easy, especially to star team member Google, and the lads win. They get their prises awarded with a degree of gracelessness. "We'll have to change the rules next time," sniffs an organiser. "But we've seen the keynotes. We're the digital homeboys, we are," says one of the miscreants.

Thursday 9/9/2004
Last day and for many of those attending IDF, traditionally the tastiest. Chief technical officer Pat Gelsinger is the chap in charge of Intel's crystal ball, and this is the time he gets to give it a good rub in public. Normally there's some pretty spiffing gadgetry involved, with enough test equipment on stage to restart the Apollo missions. Yet as we take our seats beneath the Sun of the Crashed Spectrum, the stage is bare. There's a desktop display in one corner, and a couple of comfy chairs in the other.

On strides Gelsinger, looking chipper enough. He launches into a folksy anecdote about what he was up to 35 years ago. The crowd murmurs, dangerously. He's up to something. But what?

Then onto the stage springs a dapper figure in a neat white Sigmund Freud beard, a well-fitting grey three-piece suit, and a curious nearly transparent boom mike. It's Vint Cerf, one of the inventors in 1969 of what would become TCP/IP -- and widely regarded as the founding father of the Internet.

It's hard to relate what the appearance does of this by-now mythical figure in front of an audience of geeks so Net-savvy that packets long ago replaced testosterone in their blood. There's the noise of 5,000 people simultaneously catching their breath, and for a second I'm worried that the crowd is going to leap up and surge forward onto the stage. Vint and Pat settle down in the comfy chairs and have a nice gossip about times past, times present and what's to come -- but I don't suppose it matters. They could be talking about growing tomatoes and swapping knitting patterns: for this lot, one of the Great Ones has descended. Perhaps Neil Armstrong could have beaten the buzz, but he'd have to have turned up in his working clothes.

By now, Gelsinger could have announced that Intel was getting into worm farming and the reaction would have been positive. Instead he launches into a description of the Internet of tomorrow and the company's Planet Lab testbed, where hundreds of computers around the world keep an eye on the Net and decide how to do things like route video, stomp on viruses and for all I know swap recipes for risotto. The crowd is lapping it up. At one point, British Petroleum is brought into play as an Intel partner who tests things like remote monitoring -- and then the camera zooms into a face in the auditorium. It's Lord Brown, group CEO of BP, who promptly gets a round of applause for being a lord like the War of Independence never happened. Still, he's got an awful lot of oil. You can forgive a touch of feudalism for that, right?

There are some interesting demos and some rousing speeches, but nobody cares much. We've seen Vint Cerf, and we've got something to tell our grandchildren. I've often noticed how Gelsinger has the ability to leave the audience punching the air with stuff that on cold retrospection seems more mundane than magical, but he's surpassed himself this time.

The rest of the day is typically anticlimactic. One by one, the journalists scamper back to the airport for this or that flight; gangs of builders start carrying the bones of the show out through the Moscone Centre's airy atrium and PRs sign off the last bar bills. Me, I'm staying on for a couple of days in San Francisco.

Research, y'know.

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