Rupert Goodwins' San Jose Diary

At the Intel Developer forum, the technology might be high but it keeps serving low blows to Rupert Goodwins

Sunday 14/09/2003
Long day at the office, dear? This one started at 6 a.m., to get a 7 a.m. tube for a 9 a.m. Heathrow checkin for a 11 a.m. flight that gets into San Francisco at 9:30 p.m. UK time. Only that's 1:30 p.m. local time, which means 2:30 p.m. once you're through immigration, 3 p.m. in the car to San Jose for 4 p.m. checkin at the hotel and 5 p.m. first beer at the bar. Which is 1 a.m. Monday, UK time -- really not a good idea to think in those terms -- but 19 hours travelling ain't bad. Of those 19 hours, a good three were spent in queues for something like six separate security checks. It's at times like this one is tempted by the dark side, and almost longs for a Big Brother surveillance state that scans one's fingerprints, checks your movements through the glass prison for the past six months in its universal database, and lets you through on a whim.

Truly, the romance of journalism in far-flung lands cannot be overstated.

There are good points and bad points along the way. Virgin Atlantic scores heavily in both categories: good for the in-flight entertainment with something like fifty movies on demand, and good for the insanely cheerful cabin crew. Bad for the food -- getting close to British Rail catering standards at its 1970s worst -- and the difficulty of getting more than a half-cupful of water to drink. As for the legroom in the back: it would have been humane to give us all an epidural injection on boarding to knock out everything below the waist.

Fun moments: presenting my brand-new journalist visa to the San Francisco immigration offical, an elderly gentlemen of Oriental extraction. He looked at it as if he'd never seen any such thing before. He looked at me, ditto. He then swiped the visa gingerly through the computer and spent a few moments staring at the screen, with an expression of distressed incredulity such as one might imagine on Bill Gates if refused by a cashpoint due to 'insufficient funds in your account'. At length, he elected to investigate further: "Who you? Why you here?"

I've often wondered this myself, rarely more deeply than at the far end of being crushed, depressurised, dehydrated, overstimulated and underfed for 11 hours at 37,000 feet,  but I know how ill-advised it is to enter into philosophical arguments with a person in uniform -- even one whose every aspect screamed sagacity. "Technical journalist. Intel Developer Forum".

He nodded. "Have you got... card... job... who you are?" I fished out my work ID, which was issued by an organisation no longer in existence and which says nothing about me whatsoever. "How long you here?" he said, passing the card back after a second's scrutiny. "A week." He grimaced, muttered something under his breath, and stamped my passport as if it were some venomous yet slow-moving insect. He scribbled my date of exit, but I dared not look until I was well clear. And then I was through, free to ply my trade until a date of D/S. What D/S means, I have yet to determine.

And then into the San Francisco sunshine and the hour-long journey to San Jose. It has begun.

Monday morning, 15/09/2003
I am on the 25th floor of the brand-new San Jose Marriott. I've set up a Webcam to relay the beautiful sights of downtown to London, and I'm feeling good.

As the conference centre is bolted to the side of the hotel, everyone in the place wants to leave for the same presentation at the same time. So I get in the lift at 8:55 for my nine o'clock, and it stops at every other floor to pick up more people. By the time I get to the fourth floor, it's crammed with beefy engineers and a solitary, rather nervous American businesswoman, slight and beige in her corporate suit. There are no stops below the 4th floor, so it gets the chance to build up a small head of steam as it heads down to ground. Alas, even this short run is enough to overload the speed regulator, and with the sort of shudder that has no good vibes whatsoever it thumps to a stop with the floor indicator on 1. The doors stay shut.

After 20 seconds, there's a synchronised sigh. The bloke nearest the buttons presses the alarm, and a bell sounds. Two seconds later that stops too, and there's a minute of silence. "Fercrisakes!" says the chap to my right in a Brooklyn accent. A New Yorker. Good. Other accents pipe up -- we seem to have a couple of Aussies, a small collection of Chinese and even a real Californian. Beige Company Woman says nothing, but twitches from side to side giving off those "I'm about to panic" messages that are so comforting in such situations. The button is lent on, and the bell sounds again.

"Hello?" says a voice from a hidden speaker. "Can I help you?" We express the hope that yes, she can. "We're in Elevator 2, and it's stuck on the first floor. Get us out." is the gist of our petition.

"Hold on, I'll get right back to you." says the voice. More silence for a moment, then "The engineers are on their way. It should be a couple of minutes."

We are just composing ourselves to wait this out, making jokes about  not knowing Microsoft did lift control software and the like, when the speaker clicks and starts playing musak. Until now, the lifts in this place have been mercifully silent: why here? Why now? Being engineers, the problem is quickly diagnosed: the alarm circuit is on the phone system.

We have been put on hold.

The music is bad enough, but then the true horror begins. Interspersed with California Lite Easy Listening -- you know, tasteful pianos, swooping strings, muted bass -- are adverts. For the hotel. "Why not try the fine dining in our world class Arcadia restaurant? Acclaimed Chef Michael Lazzo has created the best contemporary menu...." and "Hold your next meeting in the Marriott! Marriott. The possibilities are endless."

The whole hellish compilation is on a two-minute loop.

We are stuck in the lift for 25 minutes. There is no air conditioning. Beige Corporate Woman silently edges ever closer to what promises to be a world-class breakdown. Stereotypes assert themselves: the Chinese are stoic and impassive, the Californian threatens to sue, the Aussies and I engage in cheery banter about the "endless possibilities" and the hotel manager's anatomy, and the New Yorker takes control of the communications with our mystery voice. At one point, the voice asks "How are you doing in there?", to which he replies in a rasp: "I'm pregnant. I'm about to give birth. Get me the hell outta here!". The voice tries not to laugh -- that's not in the scripts for which the Marriott chain is so famous -- and almost succeeds.

Twenty minutes in, there's a thump from outside, and the lights on the controls go out. Another voice. "Is there anyone in there?" We reply as one that yes, surprisingly, we haven't gone anywhere.

And then the doors are forced open, inch by inch and very, very slowly. Bottled water is handed in -- I decline, as it's just too David Blaine -- and two minutes later we're allowed out to play.

I won't describe the subsequent meeting I had with the general manager -- the GM in Marriott speak. What could he do for me? I got my room moved to the fourth floor and had them comp my Internet access bill. Being British, I'm prepared to be reasonable about things -- new hotel, teething problems with the lifts, you know the thing -- but he makes one bad mistake. "It's the first time this has happened," he says. I'd  found out that the same lift did the same thing two days previously, and tell him so. "Is that right?" he asks the maintenance manager, who's standing to one side. "Errr... yes. Friday."

Either the GM doesn't know what's going on in his hotel, or he's lying. I don't much care which, but my advice is if you get the choice, don't stay in a Marriott.

Monday afternoon, 15/09/2003
This is more like it! Post-lift, the morning proved fun: a set of press briefings setting the scene. The best was a discussion of Intel's Personal Server project, given by a British PhD who is clearly not used to presenting to a room full of journos but gets into it with relish. There are a couple of hundred of us, paying rapt attention and typing furiously into our notebooks.

It's here that the effects of technology used to empower the individual first become apparent, and not in Intel's favour. At one point in the talk, the researcher holds up a prototype of the Personal Server -- it's tiny and lovely, with a perspex case sparkling over a collection of interesting looking chips. Now, until quite recently there weren't many photographers attending IDF: in the traditional manner, they lugged around big bags of lenses and had fearsome devices dangling from their necks. There were ten or so at even the bigger meetings, and they went about their business in the normal ostensibly unobtrusive manner.

These days, every hack with a laptop has a digital camera as well. No sooner was the tiny glistening prize hoist above the lectern than the hall surged forward in an enormous scrum, chairs tipped over in the rush to get the shot. The researcher disappeared behind a tidal wave of bodies, the room ablaze in an actinic blizzard. Talk about a flash mob.

After a couple of chaotic minutes, the organiser got on the PA. "Please, ladies and gentlemen, resume your seats. There will be a photo opportunity later." Nobody took a blind bit of notice. He tried again, this time more angrily, and the wave reluctantly subsided.

The effect on the researcher was dramatic. The light from the flashes was as nothing to that coming from his broad grin. For a moment, he's been Hugh Grant getting papped at the Academy Awards, and how about them apples? He radiates joy, already relishing the conversations he's going to have back at the lab canteen.

The talk resumes. But he knows something we don't, and is now getting into role. A few minutes later, he fishes in his pocket, stretches the grin another metre and pulls out -- lordy! -- a wrist-mounted remote control. This time, the organiser is ready: "Please, don't go forward. There WILL be a chance to..." but three or four villains are already out of the seats and snapping away. For the ravening pack of hacks, that's all the permission they need. The mob bays and rises.

"Roy, could you put it away?" says the organiser to the researcher, trying a different tack. But Roy will not. Roy is enjoying this far too much -- all those years of research and good works by stealth?
Payback time.

It's all good fun for everyone, except of course the forces of control. But what can they do?

Tuesday, 16/09/2003
The first keynote. You'll have read about it by now: it was the usual mix of corporate video, flashy graphs and demos that mostly work. The first of a million mentions of Moore's Law comes 10 minutes in, and with one genuinely new fact every quarter of an hour it's just about possible to turn it into a reasonable news story.

The event takes place in a cavernous hall, and the stage is backed by a projection screen easily as big as that in a large cinema. At some points, every inch is awash with high resolution graphics and the effect is genuinely impressive. The sound is loud enough to dislodge ear wax, and when at one point a clip of the Animatrix video is shown it's rather a shock when they fade it out after two minutes and you realise you're still in a presentation. "If you want any more, you'll have to pay for it" jokes the presenter, which in the context of the subject under discussion -- digital rights management -- elicits a rather uneasy laugh from the floor. I happen to know that certain people have been taking advantage of the flood of free wireless networking that permeates the show to keep up with some of their favourite TV series through means illicit, and I rather suspect they're not in the minority. Later, on going through the press pack, I discover the terms of service of that wireless networking -- it says, among other things, that you're not allowed to use it to "decrypt... the Intel Web site". How else are we expected to understand the press releases, chaps?

One of the more forced jokes in the keynote was the use of Intel's Universal Communicator super-smart phone -- it's a technology demonstrator, not a product, but is every bit as well designed as a saleable item -- to summon a flash mob. This duly assembles outside the hall and shouts various amusing slogans: I'm mildly disappointed that the organisers don't choose to copy yet another current cultural silliness and suspend CTO Pat Gelsinger in a glass box in the middle of the hall for the duration. He's a nice chap, at least when dealing with us journalists, and always up for a bit of entertainment.

There are two ghosts at the feast. One is Prescott, the next generation Pentium processor that'll be announced soon. Just not here or now. The other is Mike Magee, undead proprietor of scurrilous silicon scandal sheet The Inquirer. He's off in Taiwan this week, and has missed IDF for the first time in living memory: even the Intel execs are slightly unnerved by his absence and crack the odd nervous joke as if even mentioning his name might summon him in a cloud of sulphurous cigar smoke and really, really satanic questions. Give us some warning next time, Mike, and we'll bring a cardboard cut-out to prob in the corner of the bar. It's really not the same without you.

Wednesday, 17/09/2003
One of the constant themes at IDF for the press is the search for power. Not the sort that makes dark plans and shady deals, or imperialistically commands the world to Buy More Chips, but the prosaic electrical sort. My laptop for this jaunt is the new silver Dell Latitude X300, a very nice laptop indeed that attracts many compliments from passing journalists laden down by their older, heavier boxes, but it does illustrate one of the disappointments of recent technology. The Centrino does indeed take less wattage than its forebears, but to a man the makers of kit have chosen to reduce battery size rather than increase battery life. So I am still stuck lugging around a power supply -- so much for lighter batteries -- and looking for spare power points inbetween briefings, panels and other press events ("Wireless Idol!", er, no thanks). And so is everyone else.

There are plentiful powerpoints in the press room, but there are also plentiful journalists. And most of those powerpoints are in tiny strips: I've got a UK travel adaptor that's too bulky to fit those if anyone has plugged something into the adjacent socket. So I slump down in corridors and squat on the floor for ten minutes while the adaptor ladles electrons into my laptop: it's undignified and  uncomfortable. It's also ironic: the air is filled with megabits of free connectivity, but what good is that if the low power light is flashing?

It's worse in meetings, where the seat next to the solitary outlet is much desired. Inevitably, this leaves power leads trailing from the wall to the table, which nimble people can spot and step over but flustered fumble-footed fat hacks in a hurry invariably fail to notice (sorry, Dimriti. Hope the connector gets fixed).

Given the high concentration of sugary, stodgy food on offer in the press room -- after lunch, the only choices are cookies, chocolate brownies, ice cream, full-fat soft drinks or very odd coffee that has to be sweetened in order to be drunk. One longs for an apple -- the solution is obvious. Exercise bicycles connected to dynamos.

Thursday 18/09/2003
My favourite day -- the corporate bluster about sales projections, product rollouts and enterprise issues fades down and the R&D elements take over. Gelsinger's keynote starts off in the best way possible for a true radio nerd such as myself -- a replica of Marconi's first wireless transmitter takes front of stage and the coarse crackle of those first transmissions fills the hall. Ah, very bliss. Lots of new radio ideas are aired -- I'll be writing about those in more detail soon -- and the traditional alphabet soup of acronyms, abbreviations and gnomic standards is served up by the imperial gallon. 802.11n! 802.20! MIMO! 70GHz CMOS 90nm VCO! And a couple of slogans: No More Copper. It's a fine war cry -- the theme being that broadband wireless access is going to be more than good enough for anything that might otherwise need new bits of wire in the ground or the office - but it does come back to haunt me when I'm in subsequent meetings with people who design network processors whose main market is sucking signals off that very element.

The other Gelsingerian slogan comes at the end of his presentation, and is a curious personal manifesto. "Before I retire, I want there to be a piece of Intel technology touching every human on the planet every minute of their day." Last time, he just wanted there to be a corner of every chip Intel makes devoted to radio: clearly he now feels called to greater things. We wonder afterwards just what he meant by that: the quickest way to achieve his aim would be to sew an RFID tag into every piece of underwear, but that's possibly not what he intended. Whether the 21st century really will be the Age of Pat's Virtual Finger remains to be seen, but it'll be fun finding out.

There's an opportunity to find out, which I fluff: there's a round table with Pat and about 15n journalists at the very end of IDF, but there isn't enough time to ask all the questions. Some entertaining snippets from that: a German journo asks whether the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition was the first member of a major product family. "We'll see what the market says," quoth Pat. "When we launched the Centrino, we didn't know whether it would be a success. That brand could well not have been continued." "But you're spending millions of dollars on marketing it" pointed out the hack. "Ah well, some bets we make are bigger than others."

And are you keen on Bluetooth? Yes, but not the radio bit.


And with that, IDF was over. It merely remains for me to file my notes, pack my bags, head off to San Francisco for the weekend and struggle back to London over whatever bits of the airline industry Hurricane Isabel has left intact. You can be sure I'm walking down to the hotel checkout...