Rupert Goodwins' IDF Diary

Tuesday 17/02/2004At 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.

Tuesday 17/02/2004
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.