Rupert Goodwins' IDF Diary

The stories behind the news from last week's Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco

Sunday 21/8/2005

It's Sunday, I'm in San Francisco the day before the work starts and I'm out taking pictures with one eye on the fog and one on Flickr. It's all very well being part of a vibrant, experimentally minded and consistently challenging online digital image community — every journey is spiced with the expectation that you'll come across something unusual enough to make the hungry eyeballs take notice. But Flickr seems to have a very strong San Francisco-London axis, so the chances of finding an image that hasn't been done to death are slim. That's mildly discouraging.

Yet the magic of the viewfinder soon takes over and I forget all such reservations. I'm blasting away at stray rubbish blowing ironically in the wind, grumpy tramps, perspiring cyclists and random architecture. As I'm doing something vaguely arty with reflections in a large glassy building, I get approached by an elderly gentleman in a uniform.

"Sir? Sir? You can't take pictures of that"

I have been guilty in the past of picturing that which should not be pictured. A fascination with radio antennae got me into trouble in Morocco, while I have been warned by police on Hampstead Heath not to take pictures of a funfair because there were children present — I've still not come to terms with being a member of a culture that thinks that way. But a bog-standard building on one of San Francisco's busiest roads?

"Really? Why?"

"The owners forbid it, so I'm going to have to ask you to leave"

I look at the pavement on which I stand. To where, I wonder, am I supposed to leave?

"This is a public place, isn't it? How can you ask me to leave a sidewalk?"

Security guards are often asked to defend the indefensible, so I'm not too surprised when he executes a neat non-sequitur.

"You can take pictures of any other building here, but not this one. The owners don't allow it." "I can't see how they can prevent it. I'm not breaking any laws, am I?"

In response, he points up at the building. "There are a lot of cameras in that building taking pictures of you", he says.

"Good!" I say, not precisely truthfully. "Then it's a fair exchange, isn't it?"

"It's not allowed," he repeats. "Please stop now."

"I don't understand," I say. "What law am I breaking? If the building's on a public road, why can't I take a picture of it?"

"If I was in England," he says, "there'd be rules I didn't understand."

There are times to stand one's ground and times to bid farewell: having an aversion to causing trouble in a foreign country, I elect to make a tactical retreat.. It's not that great a building. For anyone else who fancies a pop, it's 333 Market Street, San Francisco — and if you're not sure you'll recognise it, any half-decent search engine will throw up plenty of pictures. Google Earth has a particularly good one — but I'm sure you're not allowed to do a screen capture.

Monday 22/08/2005 — Part I

Mull of Kintyre might have the mists rolling in from the sea, but SF has rapacious mountains of fog thundering across the city like a ghostly army overrunning an undefended village. It's unworldly. It's spine-tingling. It's rather damp.

It's also Day Zero, when Intel shepherds all the international journalists into a large room and gives them the pre-show briefing. This is good and bad. Good, in that we quickly get a feeling for the show's themes and remind ourselves who's who in the Intel pantheon. Bad in that the briefing goes on for many hours in a windowless box, we are gathered together from every time zone in the world and there is no coffee. As in, none. There are fizzy drinks, there are cookies and water, but every journalist from Totnes to Timbucktu knows that a hurricane of hot caffeine is the only guard against Powerpoint's own brand of brain-numbing fog.

The two true tests for that genuine Intel Day Zero experience thus come in short order: the first mention of Moore's Law (five minutes) and a man from Japan snoring loudly in the seat behind me (seven minutes).

Which is a shame, because a lot of what rolled in across the projector was good clean fun. Teraflop levels of performance on our desktops within a decade! No architectural limit before 4000 cores! Even things that can't cope with more than 64 cores — stand up and take a bow, Windows — can be spread across more with new miracle ingredient Virtualisation! What do you want to have a supercomputer on your desk for, if all they do is physics? Well, disbeliever, what do you think games are full of?

And so on, and so forth. Most interestingly in this section, we were whipped up into an ecstatic frenzy (even the Japanese behind me snorted in his sleep) over the Second Coming of the x86 Instruction Set. Legacy? Nonsense! We'll be doing that for many years to come. As John Crawford, creator of the 80386 said, "I don't mind having a rock around my neck as long as it's a gold rock". John Crawford is now the director of the Itanium Architecture — his thoughts on its rock-like properties were not mentioned.

We learned that Intel was having a big internal debate about modularisation, making complex things from preset libraries of designs, which makes things easier to build and test but loses flexibility. The company's also looking at stacking dies on top of each other to get more memory closer to the core.

Monday 22/08/2005 — Part II

The most interesting bit of the talks came next with Professor Eric Brewer, who runs Intel's lab at Berkeley, and his next big thing — technology for developing regions. He ran through a litany of facts and myths at breakneck speed; poor people have money, but their life is much more expensive. A little technology goes a long way — in the tsunami, one mobile phone in a village could and did save hundreds of people. The key to effective technology is to make it shareable. I could go on — in fact, you lucky people, I have pages of notes and will do so later.

The impression was of an extremely bright and able man finding a challenge equal to his skills, someone able to see the contradictions in the way us rich kids see the world and with the resources to break those contradictions at every level. I'm not about to hand in my battered badge of cynicism about Intel's primary motivation or its ability to act in questionable ways, nor yet able to sign up to the idea that industrial capitalism will save the world if we just stop asking awkward questions, but by golly it's good to see it put its weight behind someone who gets a light in his eye about the economics of goat farming.

He's also refreshingly not in line with everything the company says; one of the keynotes later in the week is pleased to show an Indianised computer that can run on a car battery. Car batteries aren't good, said Brewer, because they cause massive pollution problems. Similarly, Intel is firmly on the side that it would rather work with people like the Chinese government — currently imprisoning journalists and slamming the brakes on Internet access under Hu Jintao — to effect change from within; Brewer made no bones about it being better to work with non-governmental organisations because they had more focus, more continuity and were less corrupt.

It was with a sickening and uncaffeinated crunch that the words of the next speaker filtered into my brain. From ideas of rural networks created by the people who needed them, we were thrown into "wireless innovation enabling future mobile lifestyles" no, it can't be. Pray it isn't so. Yes! It's the Mobile Vision! Poor Alan Crouch, Director of the Corporate Technology Group, had the bad luck to kick off with the standard pile of marketing poo that immediately closes down even a healthy, alert mind.

Which did him no favours, but fortunately once we were past that he had some interesting snippets in his favour. Ask people worldwide how they press a doorbell, and they extend their index finger. Except for anyone nine or under, who put up a thumb — videogames are changing the way we approach technology. Old people don't answer the phone because they're afraid memory lapses will make them look silly; build a phone that tells them who's calling and what they were talking about last time, and communication is restored (Forget about the wrinklies — I need one of those phones. Now. And if you can weasel in some video recognition and a heads-up display so I can use it when meeting people face-to-face, then I for one will bring my own coffee next time.)

Monday 22/08/2005 — Part III

There were all the right things said about standards (perhaps Intel has learned something from UWB, but then again it always says the right thing), some good technical stuff about multiple radios, and we were back on course. My initial misjudgement of the man was further underlined afterwards when I had a quick chat with him — he started off as a kid by building a ZX81 from a kit and saved up all summer for the 16k RAM pack. Only the best people do that.

But by now, my neurotransmitters were almost completely depleted and my concentration was as shaky as anything Sinclair Research built on a Friday afternoon. I won't say anything about the last speaker, who concentrated on sensor networks, except to say that at the moment he chose to illustrate a point with a picture of a sewerage system — "The brown thing is the pipe. The shiny thing is the sensor" — I finally lost it and typed "blibble, blibble, blibble" into the IM session I was having with a sympathetic friend back in London.

They responded with a tale they'd heard from a friend recently returned from abroad. As the plane took off, something shifted in the overhead locker and a bottle of gin broke. The friend and their three year old daughter were showered in the stuff, and couldn't move for the five minutes it took for the seatbelt signs to go off. Friendly passengers handed them a change of clothes, and a lemon…

As we staggered out of the briefing, I made a mental promise to emulate that hapless traveller just as soon as I could find a bar that offered such a service.

Tuesday 23/08/2005 — Part I

At last! The show's afoot and Paul Otellini fronting the first keynote. "It's so exciting," said Nick Knupffer, our boyish, long-suffering and permaholidaying minder, "that I deliberately haven't read the press releases so I'll be just as thrilled as you when it's announced." Which seems an odd confession for a PR, but you can't blame him for trying to find new ways to avoid awkward questions. Bless.

It, it turned out, was a magic new chip architecture, bolted together like Frankenstein's monster from some bits of the Pentium 4's Netburst and some bits of the Pentium M. As such a thing has been on the cards since the Pentium M team said they were beating the pants off Netburst at the same time as the latter's power dissipation figures for Netburst qualified as a major source of global warming, this was only marginally more surprising than Nick complaining about our bar bills. We weren't told the name for this saviour of the silicon race, which makes it a bit difficult to write about, and for the life of me I can't see why they'd import hundreds of journalists, make a fantabulous revelation and then make it so hard to refer to. Intel's Next Generation Micro-Architecture — Ingma? It's called Converged Core inside Intel, though they don't want you to know that, which is a succinct, accurate and memorable term — I expect some lawyer somewhere got its talons into it for being too darn useful.

The rest of the keynote was downhill from there. A chap from Google showed off Google Earth, which I doubt one person in a thousand at the keynote hadn't downloaded for themselves by now. It does look impressive on cinema-sized screens, until you realise that the flythrough is as vertiginous at that scale as being strapped into one of the more insane roller-coasters that dot California. Fortunately, the demo stopped before we could demonstrate parallel processing in one huge multicore chunder.

There was the standard moment of digital pathos: Bill Siu, head of platforms, talked about unreliable power supplies in the developing world as the big screen above his head froze in a Hollywood caricature of a crashed communications link. There was the Intel Video in support of the Digital Home — happy family living life of technocratic delights, check. Cute young kids at home with sci-fi gizmos, check. People using Internet to download television? Surely not! Whatever will they think of next! "I'm hooked on soap operas from Shanghai" twittered the mother. Yes, dear, but when we do it to watch US TV before it appears over in the UK, we're the dangerous spawn of copyright anarchy.

That question came up during the Q&As after the keynote. The answer, said Otellini, was open standards for content protection like DTCP/IP and (cough) Microsoft DRM nextquestionplease. "Why didn't you mention the Itanium?" "I had a 59 minute presentation, and had to leave stuff out. If only I'd have had 60." Poor Itanium. No special life-enhancing Pentium M goodness for you!

Tuesday 23/08/2005 — Part II

Barely had we recovered from our Google-propelled ride to the far reaches of our stomachs than Sean Maloney pitched in with the Mobility Keynote. Now, Sean is a Brit made good — he's executive vice-president and manager of Intel's Mobility group, and has steadily risen through the ranks since starting as UK manager of applications engineering in the early 80s. One result is in his accent, where Thames Valley meets Valley Girl and wins. Mostly. His vowels are the very model of mobility, while his most impressive transcontinental articulation comes with his R's, which start in Swindon and end up in Santa Clara by way of Shanghai in one dramatic swoop.

His demeanour, like the rest of the on-stage execs, is much enhanced by the brand of tight-fitting transparent boom mikes that are worn close to the left cheek. These are clearly supposed to be invisible — and at a distance, they are. But on a video close-up, or when the light is just so, they look for all the world like a Prussian cavalry officer's duelling scar. This gives the impression, especially with Maloney's close-cropped tonsure, that we are dealing with beings of ruthless determination and utter discipline.

That impression is quickly offset by Maloney's message, which although spirited and uplifting contains something of the tensions one suspects exists within Intel when one corporate strategy is made to wrap up many different approaches. "The desktop is not dying, there's just a shift to notebooks," for example, when the graph shows the perfect X shape of one product range thoroughly marmalising another: "The Hussars are not being routed, there's just a shift to Napoleon". Or "I know we don't talk about gigahertz any more, but here's our new Monahans ARM core running at 1.2GHz. We're really excited about this".

We then segue into the weirdest and most entertaining section of this or any other keynote. By way of demonstrating just how good WiMax is, Maloney has caused to exist four links in the four corners of the Earth, which are now beamed into the auditorium. Each link in turn delivers a local notable, who delivers a pithy salutation and commends Intel on the wonderfulness of WiMax, and in short order we are to be left in no doubt about the global reach of such glory.

But no. However good WiMax is, it can't emulate Maloney's R's to reach across continents — and so the majority of the link is via satellite. This creates a delay, which combines with the language difficulties and the time zones to foster an atmosphere of almost total bewilderment.

Tuesday 23/08/2005 — Part III

Our first WiMax dignitary is a vice-mayor of Chengdu in China, who faces the camera with determination. He speaks no English, and so the initial conversation is with a third party who hands over. There is a long pause. Vice-mayor blinks, slowly. He then launches into a speech in Chinese which goes on for quite a long time. And then some more, followed by more and topped off with extra helpings of more. The audience is at first quiet and receptive, then restless, then starts to giggle to itself at the sheer ludicrousness of what is happening. At length, Vice-Mayor reaches his conclusion, and stops. There is a long pause. "Thank y…", I think I hear someone say before a hidden translator is prodded with a stick somewhere on the loop and commences a word-perfect spiel of equal length. The gist of this is that Chengdu is a good place for efficient living: it is, however, no place for brevity.

And this was just the first of four. Next up is Captain van Moustache on a boat in Rotterdam. He seems a kindly fellow, but like the rest of us utterly at a loss to understand what is going on or why. He has good Dutch English and goes on agreeably about how WiMax will replace paperwork for the hard-working sailor, but he never really warms to his thesis. He goes on for some time, but perhaps his boat is approaching some unseen reef; his confusion and concern increases linearly until with a mutual sense of utter relief he is dismissed to the digital darkness.

Argentina now, and a school in San Miguel de Monte. Here at least it is daylight, and an attractive young couple are shown disporting themselves in the classroom to a backdrop of earnestly typing youngsters. There is a long pause while our new friends are made aware of the fact that they're on the big screen, followed by much talk of el Internet y el muy importante WiMax. There is some animated waving from the kids in the background, which I return.

"We said four corners of the Earth" said Malone to the operator of the global WiMAX experience. "Do they speak English in our last place?"

"Depends on your perspective," came the reply. "It's Canada." And there was a man relaxing under the mighty pines on some remote Northern island, who proved entirely up to the task of talking at length about… well, yes, you can probably guess.

The rest of the day was briefings, briefings, briefings — finishing with a quick tour of the Tech Showcase, the ground-floor science fair where all Intel's partners show off their goodies in booths. Most fun. Because the mobility keynote overran by quarter of an hour and nothing else was allowed to happen before it had finished, the journos are let into a show floor in a state of some unpreparedness. This is most enjoyable in the little cluster of ultrawideband booths, where the different bits of equipment are interfering with each other something chronic. The bit of the standard that copes with this isn't finished yet so it's a red-blooded contest for bandwidth; one stallholder is desperately trying to raise his technical expert on the phone while the next door neighbour is spouting wideband TV across his link. "I can get 400Mbps easy if he would just let me have some of the bloody spectrum," says my correspondent. "I'm down to 50 at the moment." The next door neighbour is unsurprisingly relaxed about this, but is less happy when I interpose my hand between his transmitter and his receiver and the throughput instantly drops to near-zero. "Yes, well, it's the antennas", he says.

Quite. I do wonder how UWB will cope when it's given to the waiting world.

Wednesday 24/08/2005

There was a classic Knupffer moment last night, towards the end of the evening's press party. David Ross of Hexus.net was teasing our floppy-haired minder with the old favourite, "I've just written something you're going to hate." Nick is too wily to rise to such bait, and plays along. "Bet you haven't." "I have, and you'll find out about it when it goes live at 0900 UK time." "Nah." "Yah." And David, suitably protective of his scoop, bends towards Nick's ear and whispers something.

"Oh, you haven't. There's no way you could know that. Not one in a hundred chance. You tell me exactly what it is, and I'll tell you how wrong you are."

Another whisper. Nick's face makes it halfway towards forming the first word of a jocular rebuff and freezes as he realises that Ross has it dead right, that there's nothing to be done, and that the time taken to reach this realisation has in any case rendered argument useless. "But you haven't got the logo…"

"Wanna bet?"

The Big Secret — which has been half-out for months — is that Intel's name for the home platform is Viiv, pronounced much as a Prussian cavalryman would count past four. This is the centrepiece of the second half of the Wednesday keynote, and it's much the same sort of branding exercise as Centrino was for laptops. Buy all the Intel components — 64-bit processor, the right chipset, the right software stack — and you can stick the Viiv logo on your box. The logo looks a little like the candy-coloured cousin of Sony's Vaio, slightly infantile and slightly sinister with the two Vs forming fangs either side of the truncated tongue of the oblique //.

You know the rest; improved customer experience, ease of use enhanced, inventing the digital entertainment industry, architected from the ground up. Could there be any connection between the leading role of Microsoft's DRM and the total absence of Apple from the party? You remember Apple, whose recent adoption of Intel's processors was the cause of much flagwaving not so long ago? Good, because it's not clear that Intel does. You might have thought that it had some role to play in the digital entertainment industry — but there's nary a hint at IDF.

The rest of the day is more briefings, from which I mostly excuse myself due to a slight allergy to the house dust in the Digital Home in favour of various technical talks, but we finish off nicely with a big UK journo dinner in one of the few San Francisco restaurants that does Californian food. The waiter copes well with the garrulous banter of over-briefed hacks, and soon twigs that the idea of taking the bottle away between glasses is not one that meets with our approval. Professional ethics forbids me from reporting the bulk of the conversation at table, that and the knowledge that the First Amendment is no good to me back in the UK

Thursday 25/08/2005

Last day, and the one I most enjoy. Justin Rattner, who's in charge of R&D, sets the tone at the keynote by announcing that when he first heard of Radio Free Intel — Gelsinger's futuristic idea of having every chip with built-in radio networking — he thought "Boy, we've got our fannies hung out a bit too far." Perhaps he'd been earwigging at last night's dinner.

There's always a special treat on Thursdays, even without amusing disparities between British and American slang; we think fondly of Gelsinger arriving on a Segway in a jacket hung heavy with gadgets, or William Shatner proclaiming loudly that "None of this shit works!" This time, Rattner rattles quickly through tales of science fiction computer disasters — HAL9000's homicidal fondness of depressurisation, Skynet's disapproval of humans — to an icon which is Asimovian in its determination to protect its fleshy masters. And in rolled Robby the Robot, who delivered some amusing schtick before Rattner got back to the technology of today. In the background, a dark-suited minion nipped out of the shadows and turned Robby off — just in case he got some bad ideas, perhaps. This turned out to be not so far from the truth: after the keynote, Robbie was reactivated and Rattner bounded to his side for a photo opportunity and some light banter. After the usual stuff about feeble human technology, Robbie got the blag on. "I don't suppose you can get me a laptop, Commander?" he asked, hopefully. He was turned off shortly afterwards.

Back at the keynote, a demonstration of smart photo organisation was underway. Rahul Sukthankar from Intel's Pittsburgh lab had got a neat bit of software that could look at thousands of digital snaps and search by content. "Ah, but you're confusing me," he said. "Last time we did this, you had a standard Intel blue shirt on — not the pink one". Indeed, Rattner was leading another trend at IDF, the move away from the blue shirt and the khaki slacks. Dark trousers and lighter shirts were in, and one particularly daring design engineer even sported a tight leather jacket. Could it be that the digital home was signalling a move to more casual wear? Were we far from the first presentation entirely staffed by people in Speedos — with or without their fannies hanging out?

Such thoughts distracted me from the stage, where the photo demonstration was wrapping up with a picture of Rattner successfully pulled from the database, alongside one of a sunlit temple. Even after much thought, I'm a bit confused by that.

Then came Lenitra Durham, who demonstrated automatic computer management by putting a boiling kettle inside a server — that age-old problem scenario. Again, the precise symbolism escaped me — it was something to do with heat and humidity being detected and servers being switched to cope — but I wasn't alone. Surrounded by the fruit of millions of dollars of R&D, watched by some of the keenest eyes in the silicon industry and at the centre of a major push by Intel and its partners, the pot did what pots always do: it refused to boil. Moore's Law may be strong, but Murphy's Law is stronger. Moral: don't put a kettle in your server. That's important.

There was further flummery involving a large jar of mealworms, more business with Rattner theatrically pulling components off a motherboard and throwing them in a bin, and psychological problems getting monolithic magnetic material into the fab plants. And that was the final keynote.

I promise faithfully to tell you why all of this matters just as soon as I manage to rid myself of the image of Otellini in Speedos, a picture which has stuck despite a variety of post-IDF events including two passes through San Francisco Airport's security with a troublesome Byzantine icon of St George kebabbing a dragon, a wild and unexpected night on Columbia Avenue when I should have been flying home, the subsequent embarrassing loss of a passport and the realisation that I have just as many notes to convert to articles as I've managed to process so far. And I never mentioned the boat trip with the piratical food, the unexpected appearance of Mad Mike Magee of the Inquirer with his charming — nay, angelic — son in tow, or the frank attempts to bribe innocent journalists by desperate Intel staffers in search of a good nosh.

At least the fog went away.

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