Intel Developer Forum 2009 - day one

I said it was going to be one of those IDFs. It was, more than I could have guessed.
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

I said it was going to be one of those IDFs. It was, more than I could have guessed.

To begin at the beginning... but when was that? The 9am first keynote of the day, a little Otellini in the morning? But there'd been a 7:30 breakfast briefing before then. The breakfast briefing, then – but there'd been a 6:30am phone call set up. And that was just four hours after I'd sent the last copy back to the UK from Day Zero. Which was itself out of time, as my planned evening writing was disrupted by the discovery of high level Intellites at the hotel bar, an unusual event which deserved investigation.

In the name of journalism, you understand. That and jetlag.

The 2:30am copy, you'll have read. The 6:30am phone call: timezones, bosses, meetings. You know.

Which leaves us with the 7:30am breakfast briefing. This was called by HP, who promised to (here I quote exactly) "unveil a new product that taps the power of Intel multi-core processors to enable a new generation of communication and collaboration, to achieve unheard of levels of ROI and environmental impact".

Apart from "unheard of levels of environmental impact" being the sort of thing we're trying to avoid, that seems a pretty straightforward promise. What we got was HP's version of Skype (you can tell this because it's called Skyroom and does HD video conferencing from PCs). Which had previously been "unveiled" in March, where HP gave exactly the same demo they did this time. Admittedly, that demo wasn't in the basement of a hotel overpacked with grumpy hacks trying to digest an American breakfast which clearly didn't want to be there either.

Tscha, HP, you've always had a reputation for overselling events, but this is beginning to assume the settled shape of accepted fact.

Then keynotes. The newly promoted Sean Maloney gave a rapid canter intro to the show, and then it was Otellini Time.

But before I mention Paul Otellini's keynote — Moblin, Atom, embedded chips, graphs go up and down (rarely with numbers), smiling people juggle exciting technology — I think we should take a moment to examine that new force in semiconductor physics, Maloney's accent.

A Sarf Londoner by birth and mildly Irish by nature, Maloney's adventures in the ultraworld of Intel management have had their effect on his voice. In one sentence — indeed, in one word — it can fly from Brockley to the Bay Area via stopovers in Boston and Brooklyn, only to make the return trip in the final syllable.

This is an interesting poser. If Maloney's accent can move 10,000 kilometers in the space of a syllable, around 300ms, then his words must be able to travel at around a tenth of the speed of light.

That's fast enough to cause detectable relativistic effects on their weight – and, if my schoolboy physics is correct (It's San Francisco, you can get schoolboys on room service), then a word travelling at 0.1 times c has around 0.5 percent more mass than at rest. Half M vee squared over cee squared, and all that.

That may not seem much. But if every word Maloney utters is even slightly weightier than those said by others, he's got a built-in advantage that will add up over time to an unstoppable force. And indeed, this is what we observe.

Back with Otellini, whose accent is immutable, his opening keynote was masterfully presented and with a few interesting nuggets to sieve out of the stream of marketing. For example: Intel is copying ARM's business model almost exactly, by selling its Atom chip as a virtual component for inclusion in other people's chips and encouraging a huge community of developers. It's also copying Apple — no crime in that — by going down the app store route. In five years, Otellini said, he could see Intel selling more processors like this than in the mainstream of Nehalem, Xeons et al.

There's a lot to chew over there: all I'll say for now is that anyone following this battle should be very, very careful to check everyone's claims against reality. Powerpoint predictions have a habit of turning into 'real' data, because it's so tricky to measure what's being claimed — let alone in comparable form.

The Q&A at the end — well, Europe came up and the insistence that Intel had indeed been naughty in shutting out the opposition by exerting commercial pressure on its customers. Had that happened, asked one hack. "We do not do that", answered Otellini – a curious use of the present tense to answer a question about the past, as another hack noted later.

Intel continues to present itself as being unfairly treated by an evil European judiciary, unable to answer its accusers while they're free to misrepresent whatever evidence they like. Well, perhaps.

About the European accusations, I know nothing more than you do. But in the days when I was involved in a small chip-buying start-up, it was standard practice for large chip companies to use every weapon they could to shut out the competition. (And one that backfired: we needed one part, was told we could only have it if we bought another part with it instead of from the competition, so we went out and found a much better alternative for both. That's harder if you're facing a monopoly and a single-sourced part).

Then it was Maloney's keynote, which veered between rich farce — him trying to order a drink from a giant iPhone-like gaming console that towered over him — and thundering technology, like the experimental PCI Express SSDs that were delivering over a million random IO operations a second, or around 4Gbps throughput. That's the next game-changer, right there: memory mapped mass storage. Bearing in mind that some Intel products can now map a terabyte of memory, there's a revolution (if solid state storage can be said to revolve) waiting to happen.

I'm not sure whether Larrabee, Intel's mysterious manycore graphics chip, is rich farce or gamechanger. Maloney's demonstration of it doing so-so graphics, and his refusal point blank to give any technical information whatsoever about the chip itself, is rather suggestive of the former. I'm not sure when Intel last had a chip out with software developers and absolutely no technical info available to anyone else, but it ain't normal, Martha.

I wish I had time to cover the rest of the day's events. The whiteboards which dot the show floor, on which people are encouraged to write down their ideas — and which have more on them than perhaps Intel realises. The "BUMMM! Bum bum bum BUMMMM!" T-shirts which are supposed to echo the Intel Inside sting, but instead make Brit journos giggle like schoolgirls (This being San Francisco, you can order... oh, but never mind). We even hatched a plot to buy a bunch of these — the T-shirts, not the schoolgirls — and give them to the tramps and panhandlers which surround the conference centre, but that could be construed as bad taste. And rightly.

There was an Intel-sponsored Maroon 5 concert. Nothing more need or should be said.

But now, I must go off for more keynotes. There are many untold stories from yesterday, and I'll get around to them later. Any day when you get high praise from one Intel exec and a severe dressing-down from another needs to compost a bit, I think.

At least until one's safely home.

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