Rupert Goodwins' IDF Diary

From überbeards to The Golden Age Of Wireless, Rupert reports his latest San Francisco adventures
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

Saturday 4/3/2006

It's that wonderful moment, sixteen hours after leaving my Holloway home, when I finally get to the front of the immigration queue in San Francisco airport. My inquisitor today will be Mendoza, a large pock-marked man with raven-black slicked-back hair and a red nose.

I hand him my passport, helpfully held open at the visa page.

"An I visa, eh? Don't see many of them. Journalist?" He reaches for his gun. I stiffen.

"We're not that dangerous!" I yelp, forgetting for a second my hard-learned training about not joshing with the uniformed help in such situations.

"Eh?" he said, pulling out a handkerchief that he had stuffed behind the butt of the gun and blowing his nose.

"Oh. I thought you were going for.. you know... that..."

He laughed, then wheezed. "No, no. It's hay fever. All the dust comes off the passports ". He riffled through mine by way of illustration.

Outside, it's raining. It'll be raining for the rest of the week, more or less. Inside, it's time to stay awake as long as possible — but sometime towards midnight I fall asleep in the bar.

Sunday? Walks in the rain, Japanese tea garden. Peculiar art. San Francisco is fun.

Monday 6/3/2006

Two things happen on Monday — registration and a journalist briefing. Registration takes a couple of minutes; go to the front desk at the show, hand over a business card and pick up a bag and badge.

This time, there's something a little extra in the badge — an RFID chip connected to a rectilinear dipole looking like something the Mayans would have carved in the desert to attract passing aliens. Back at the hotel, some research reveals it's a Symbol device carrying 256 bits of information and capable of being written or read up to ten feet away. That's with the standard readers — directional aerials would do better.

This turn of events prompts some discussion in the bar. We quickly discover that you can break the chip between the nails of finger and thumb, much as you would kill a flea. Alternatives include wrapping it in tinfoil or swapping it for someone else's (with their agreement or through sleight of hand). There's no sign — and we have no reason to suspect — that Intel is using the RFIDs in any other way than it used to swipe the barcodes on the front of the badges when we go into sessions. The readers are bolted to girders hanging from the ceilings by the venue entrances like solar panels strapped to a space station truss, But still, there is much murmuring about the PRs following us on radar when we go to the loo.

And so into the four-and-a-half hour briefing, where we're told about parallelism — "There'll be hundreds of cores, if we can work out how to program them. Progress has been painfully slow, but we're making headway" — and new ways of locking memory. There's a new metric for processors called 'satisfaction per watt', but they didn't really say how to benchmark it or whether it could also apply to electric blankets. There is talk of capital expenditure, of international radio standards, of "getting a visceral sense of the counter-intuitiveness of MIMO".

All this was taking place in a low-ceilinged ballroom — OK, basement — of the San Francisco Marriott, and by the time the Homeplug mains networking chap had won the buzzword bingo we were beginning to feel like the slaves locked in with King Tut's mummy.

There was some light relief as at one point an Intelite produced a video cable designed for the new Unified Display Interface standard. The room rose as one. Hundreds of jetlagged geeks, starved of any form of gadgetry by hours of talking heads, grabbed their cameras and formed an ugly scrum around the gobsmacked guru. This went on for a good five minutes. Then the next chap stood up. "I wish I had a cable to show you", he said, "but I'm here to talk about wireless..."

Later, we're shipped off to the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill for a "Mobility Showcase". This is a posh apartment filled with laptops doing laptoppy things. Perhaps I'm old and cynical but none of them was doing anything new: especially the one running Vista. There were two noteworthy observations: first, that one of the rooms in the apartment was where Sean Connery had his hair cut in The Rock, and second that there was no Apple.

Not for the first time, I wonder how badly Intel's old pals had felt their noses were put out of joint by the new best friend from Cupertino.

Tuesday 7/3/2006

And so we hit the full-on IDF.

Not so many IDFs ago, all the Intel people wore a standard uniform of khaki trousers (or "Cacky Pants" as they insist on calling them) and open-necked blue shirts. Ties are as out of place in IDF as bikinis in Riyadh. Of late, though, different tiers of Intel bod come in different colours — black for the keynote stagehands, shades of blue and green for the execs. And this time, the Intel Fellows — distinguished people with a history of innovation — are marked out by their maroon shirts. At least, Intel calls it maroon: it is, of course, red. All Star Trek fans know what that means — and indeed, the red shirt count dropped dramatically as IDF progressed.

This time, instead of spreading the keynotes out across all three days, Intel decided to have all the keynotes on the first day and then have Mega-Briefings and Technology Insights. I never quite worked out what the difference was between all these; it seemed a way to say the same thing four times in four slightly different ways.

But all that was to come. The keynotes today kicked off with a series of feel-good slides showing happy bright young people interacting with gizmos, leaping in the air and generally having an excellent tech-centred lifestyle.

Unfortunately, whoever put the series together hadn't spotted that the picture of a man in a bunny suit holding the hand of a seven year old Asian girl was, to people brought up on science fiction dystopias and scary music videos, utterly terrifying. In the noisy dark of the auditorium, what-if stories buzzed around my head: was she some robot child born of laboratory experiments? Was she in the Zone, a test subject bombarded by pathogens in a devastated environment vacated by normal humans? Or had she taken over the bunnyman by telepathy, telling him to get ready to inveigle himself into Fab 28 to do her evil, twisted desires?

My musings were cut short by Justin Rattner, CTO, the first in a long succession of top Intel beings and the first to produce a long string of codenames. Merom, Conroe, Woodcrest. Silverton. Quad-core in 2007. "But one word has not passed my lips" he said. Itanium? I thought. "Platforms" he said. Oh well.

Then came Mr IDF himself, Pat Gelsinger. He talked of the telecoms market. He talked of enterprise. He talked of still more code names: of Thermopolis, of Bensley, of Baxter Creek. He talked of revolutions to come — "closer than you think". He repeated that phrase, savouring its excitement.

But we did not listen. We were staring. He had grown a beard.

I've said it before: I admire Intel because it is rigorously uncaring about what its executives do with the hair on their heads. Executives can go from Fozzy Bear to Kojak and back via Meatloaf, and nobody minds. But facial hair has a bad history, especially with enterprise responsibility. Mike Fister got given the Itanium to look after, he grew a true bandito moustache, he fled for the hills. Now Pat's been given the Itanium to look after — and look what's happened.

It's a very fine beard. With a cocked green hat and lime tights, he'd be Errol Flynn in the Adventures of Robin Hood. But it was a beard — and wherever he'd got "Closer than you think" from, it clearly wasn't a close study of Gillette adverts.

With an effort, we pull ourselves back to reality — only to be rudely shoved back into Gelsinger's very own fantasy world. One of the things he has to do is flog the ATCA telecommunications rack standard: it's good money, but it's dull. Even by geek standards.

So we get an ATCA fashion show. "Norm's ready for anything with this dual-core server" said Gelsinger as swanky music lithely catwalked its way into the keynote. Norm sashayed onto the stage, an engineer in black trying to be coquettish with a printed circuit board. "The Blade For You!" said Gelsigner. "Check out Randy!" Another engineer in black, hips swivelling, another circuit. This went on for eight engineers — all shapes, all sizes, one women, seven blokes, three beards (not counting the überbeard) — while the audience roared.

It was downhill from there, really. The sexiest thing on the stage (apart from Norm, of course) was the SS4000-E, a cute little black storage number containing up to 2TB for the SME "or the advanced home user". Bob Muglia of Microsoft comes on. Microsoft is "very excited by Itanium", but "superexcited" by quadcore and "very deeply passionate" about virtualisation. And here's a video of various big computer users saying how much they love Itanium, including a Frenchman in a server room SHOUTING TO BE HEARD OVER THE FANS.

Then there's the touching moment when Gelsinger can finally talk about processor architecture — and really comes alive. Conroe, the first Core architecture desktop chip, is due in Q3 and is "Way cool! This is the biggest performance leap since out of order execution — and that was my chip! I hate being beat!" For the first time, you can hear the exclamation marks.

Then we have a shower of facts: quad-core will be 45nm. Cloverton will have a 1333MHz front side bus. 3× performance increase in performance-per-watt over four generations of mobile processors.

Sean Maloney comes on, followed by a small silver electric scooter with mobile WiMAX — well, it would be mobile if Intel's temporary radio licence for the transmitter covered more than the building. Some problem with spectrum allocation, perhaps? But no — here's a video to prove us cynics wrong. 2005 was the Year WiMax Got Real! Angola! Australia! Brazil!

Then Don Macdonald of the Digital Home Group turns up. He demonstrates that while a cup of Starbucks coffee is hotter than a DVD player it is quieter than a set top box. To be honest he lost me a bit here, but he has the figures to prove it — 77.8°C and 26.6dBA. He demonstrates that Intel has a zero-button remote control (sssh, it's really a microphone) that you can speak into. Command your Viiv PC manfully to "Record Family Guy" and there's a one in four chance it will Record Family Guy instead of going "Beep-bop?" in a faintly puzzled cadence. He demonstrated a concept platform called Salt Creek — paddle not provided.

And then we got to go back to the hotel

Wednesday 8/3/2006

This is the day I start to lose it.

We've had the Core architecture overview in the keynotes. We've had the Core architecture overview in the press briefings . We've had the Core architecture overview in the Technology Insights. And now we're promised the very technical side of how it all actually works… which starts with a Core architecture overview and roadmap. An hour in, that's still all we've had.

This is why they don't let journalists carry concealed weapons.

However, I have discovered the answer to the Mystery of the Beard, through the mystic journalistic technique known to adepts as 'asking the man at a party'. Gelsinger grew it in competition with his son, who came back from first year in college covered in chin moss. Moreover, Mrs G managed to pronounce Gelsinger Junior's beard "better" but Gelsinger Senior's "more elegant", thus avoiding any nasty intergenerational warfare. The beards remain, at the pleasure of her indoors. It may happen, says Gelsinger, that he will sacrifice the experiment if his team hit a target, but it'll probably be insufficiently humiliating to count as decent motivation.

I also overhear the following conversation, which can only happen at IDF. There are two engineers, one from Intel, one from Network Appliance.

"Do you know Lincoln Myers?" says Intel Man."I think he's with you."

"Lincoln Myers?" says NetApp. "I know a Linc. Might be him"

"Works only at night." says Intel Man.

"Yeah!" says NetApp, suddenly enthused. "That's him. Cool guy!"

"I know him," says Intel Man. "We play D&D."

"Oh, way cool! He runs the test lab, you know. Is he a good DM?" [Dungeon Master. If you want to know any more about D&D, feel free to ask. Someone else. RG]

"Nah, he just plays. We hang out and drink beer mostly..."

"Waaaaait! Time out! Linc drinks beer?"

"No. I drink the beer."

"Oh, wow. That would have ruined my image of him"

We've been promised seamless access to the wireless network, and at last it's started to work. I know it's working, because every time I want to see a Web page having moved between access points, it says "Well done! You're on seamless access! Press the button to continue!".

Then there's a quick tour around the Technology Showcase. Things that made me go hmmm: lots of working Ultrawideband stuff, all of which is due to be launched in the second half of this year. Not all of it is in pretty packages, but there's cool stuff like portable hard disk drives that whisk your data away in the blink of an eye. There's also an incredibly clever antenna — well, two antennas just a few millimetres apart from each other, but which are unaware of each other's presence. What's broadcast on one isn't picked up on the other, or at least nowhere near as much as it should be. This should be impossible: that the thing's made from a couple of patterns on a printed circuit board makes it twice as weird. For people wanting to put two different wireless systems in one box and have them not interfere with each other, it'll be the bee's knees. I did ask how it worked — apparently it's a slot antenna (good, know about them) next to a dipole (ditto) but the E waves and the M waves are so constructed as to avoid mutual inductive effects. Er, yes. Well, they'll be publishing details in the IEEE Review Of Clever Wireless in the summer, so I'll get back to you then.

Then there was the laptop with a very clever screen hinge that means you can use it in economy — I want one of those, although there'll be a helpful hint on how to double your space in the back of a Virgin 747 at the end of the diary — and any number of Ultra Mobile PCs. The Intel people seemed vaguely embarrassed by Microsoft's Origami push into UMPC territory: "This is clever, but it'll be very difficult to make" said one demonstrator of the pink one with the swivelling keyboard, and "Next year, the batteries will be better and the platform will use less power."

So put your purse away, madam. Don't touch that wallet, sir. 2007? Think again then.

Thursday 9/3/2006

Last day of IDF, and things are picking up. I learn that the latest EFI version — UEFI 2.0, the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface, which is replacing the threadbare BIOS — has grown more networking capabilities, better 64-bit support, superior flash upgrading skills and is generally much better at supporting operating systems. So why has Microsoft dropped EFI support from the first version of Vista? Ah, there are mysteries beyond even the Beard of Pat.

I learn that silicon photonics is cooking nicely, and that we should expect an infrared photodetector announcement in the next quarter or two.

Yet lots of problems remain to be fixed: you can make silicon do lots of clever optical things and the same silicon will also do lots of clever electronic things, but you can't just mix them. The optical components are much, much taller than the electronic ones — a bit like a six story block of flats towering over a Citroen 2CV. And turning silicon into electronics means starting off with a very hot process and going through a series of increasingly cooler moves, adding just the right compounds — each increasingly sensitive to heat — at the right time. The same is true of optical silicon — except that the sequence of the right compounds at the right time is different. It's a bit like inventing a production line that can build a tower block and the car inside the basement garage at the same time, including baking the bricks and smelting the metal, without either process disturbing the other.

I learn… that IDF is over. Phew.

Later that evening, I and a couple of other UK hacks disappear into the city night to see a very rare event indeed. Thomas Dolby — of She Blinded Me With Science and many other, much finer yet less well known 80s pop tunes — is kicking off his first tour for many years, and he's starting in the intimate (OK, tiny and crowded) settings of the Mighty club, under the freeway, miles from the hotel. As he started his career with an album called The Golden Age Of Wireless, it seems appropriate to move there from the world of WiMax, Wi-Fi, 802.11n and UWB. The ticket costs me $10 and the set is only seven songs long, but everyone in the place has a whale of time. Especially Mr Dolby, who tweaks his World War Two vintage electronics hooked up to state of the art Mac magic with aplomb. "I feel like Austin Powers — I've gone to sleep for twenty years and woken up with all these cool toys!".

And Friday, and home.

Oh, that way to double your space in economy on Virgin? Only works in 747s, and only if you can check in online the day before. If you can — do so, and when the computer says you're in, change your seat to either 61A or 61K. These are the end seats on the row where the fuselage starts to curve in towards the tail, and there's not quite enough room for three seats next to the wall. So you get nearly a seatsworth of space between you and the wall, plus two seatbacks to yourself for stashing stuff away for the trip. With a bit of swiveling, there's tons of legroom and you can expand widthwise with ease. The seats in rows 62 and 63 are pretty good too, but 61? That's the ticket.

Don't say we never tell you anything useful.

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