Rupert Goodwins' IDF Diary

Tuesday 7/9/2004We 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.

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

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