One of the side effects of having a job in the IT media is a certain level of cynicism when it comes to technology. This is by no means a bad thing – sometimes, when the developers and business partners are sitting in the front row of the auditorium clapping hands like so many wind-up monkeys, it’s good for the media to sit back and try and concentrate on the real meaning behind what’s actually being said. (It does mean you don’t get invited back to Apple conferences though – applauding the magical is mandatory in Cupertino).
So for the last few days while attending the Intel Developers Forum, I’ve been letting my spider-sense tingle every time I smell overt marketing verbiage – to seriously mix a few metaphors. I’ve sat through talks on mobility, on tablets, on smartphones, on cloud, on ultrabooks as the new paradigm of personal computing, on what’s next for ULV and a lot words and slide talking about the ill-defined beast known as the end user experience.
And after all this, I’ve come to one rather strange conclusion for such a dyed in the wool pessimist as myself: I think I really quite like Intel’s vision of tomorrow.
It’s easy to get cynical about certain things: it’s hard not to think of Intel’s work with the next generation of Atom processors as mild case of shutting the barn door after letting the StrongARM horse bolt back when they should have been looking a little further down the line. It’s easy to see the ultrabook obsession as a mere marketing ploy to keep the PC relevant. But Intel is a company, not a philanthropic organisation – of course they want a bite of tablet cherry and even more bites of PC cherry and only a fool would condemn them for it. (And as my colleague Mr Gillooly has pointed out
there’s a lot to be excited about when it comes to the ultrabook, despite the ever-so-slightly irritating name.)
Above all, I find myself extremely impressed with Intel’s overall commitment to the “end user experience”. Much as I roll my eyes when people tell me that they’re “putting the personal back in PC” and making the “c stand for creation”, as a company Intel puts a remarkable amount of thought (and presumably time, money and effort) into thinking about the ever-so-humble user.
In a round table session after Wednesday’s ultrabooktastic keynote speech, the always over energised Mooly Eden became amazingly candid when questioned about what he meant by Haswell deployment ending the “ultrabook revolution
”. It’s about pushing past just revolutionising the form factor – it’s about moving on to change the experience.
I’ve long held a theory that any technology is at its best when it becomes invisible. The example I always drag out is the light switch: one only ever thinks of the light switch when it doesn’t work. Flick that switch, a light comes on, and narry a neuron is expended in contemplation of having made it happen – it is, for all intents and purposes, invisible. Any technology should aspire to that level of invisibility. Think of the horrorshow that was trying to set up a home WiFi network back in the early ‘00s compared to the reletive simplicity now and you’ll get a sense of what I mean.
That aspiration of invisibility is all about the end user experience. The touchscreen has proven itself a remarkable success story in this arena (hand a non-touchscreen eReader to any one under 25 and watch them stab their fingers at the screen in increasing frustration if you need proof). And for a company that’s traditionally been thought of as “chip guys” Intel has an impressive understanding of this.
After banning photography for a few moments in the round table, Eden pulled out a concept prototype of an ultrabook that incorporated a clear touchscreen interface on both the inside and outside of the case. Why shouldn’t he be reading his text messages from his phone on that screen while the laptop was closed, he asked. Why shouldn’t he be able to say “meeting room” to the laptop and it to know that he wanted directions to the room that his schedule listed as his next destination – and have those directions shown on the external screen.
The processing capacity is almost there – and that 2013 deadline for Haswell deployment, according to Eden, is when it should arrive. So, Intel are interested in looking at how that end user experience might well be created. This is, bear in mind, a company that does not make screens, does not actually make laptops and does not make commercial user interfaces.
In a different area of the Moscone Center (yes, they spell it that way) I meet Jennifer Healey (no relation) from Intel’s Interaction and Experience Research division, working under the aegis of the always impressive Genevieve Bell (hence IERs unofficial nickname of Bell Labs). A collective of futurists, anthropologists, psychologists and refugees from other disciplines even more diatmetrically opposed to engineering. Jennifer happily tells me that the technology itself is not exciting in itself to them – it’s all about what you can do with it from the point of view of the user.
Rapid boot up, instant on, all day battery life, high-end graphics processing in a tiny form factor – for the average punter, these aren’t exciting ideas. But they are something they desperately want, even if they don’t entirely realise it. It’s good to know that someone with as much clout – and as much internal diversity – as Intel are excited about it.
So yes, it does appear I might have drunk a little Kool-Aid while treading the foggy streets of San Francisco. But you know, even to my usually jaded and vaguely disappointed mindset, it’s been a refreshing experience to walk away from a conference genuinely excited about what the future might bring.
Nic Healey travelled to San Francisco as a guest of Intel