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Hunger Games: Apple stagnates while Intel innovates

Intel IDF 2012 san francisco innovation technology conferenceHunger, pure and simple, drives innovation like no other. A company that’s hungry and battling just to stay alive is a lot more motivated to push the envelope and come up with cutting-edge products than a company in a safe, comfortable position.

That was never more evident than this week. Apple’s iPhone 5 launch and Intel’s annual Developer’s Forum were a study in contrasts, the tale of two billionaire kings in two very different positions. Apple sits pretty atop the mobile heap, raking in obscene amounts of cash and brand awareness; Intel commands the desktop computer world with an iron fist, but the rapid rise of mobile technology — more specifically, ARM’s energy-efficient processors — and the global cooling of the PC market threatens the company’s very future.

Two companies, two very different positions, two very different events. The results?

The iPhone 5 and everything else Apple announced Wednesday may be beautiful, but they’re stagnant; several updated products, a handful of incremental upgrades, and not a fresh idea to be found. Meanwhile, Intel and its partners were busy rethinking the entire concept of mobile computing and innovating their asses off — but since the world was busy being distracted by Apple’s ho-hum hype circus, nobody noticed.

Intel: A $54 billion company with a lot to lose

The overall consensus on the iPhone 5 is in and it’s pretty much unanimous: this is an astonishingly good product that was so totally expected that no one was surprised or even that impressed. Maybe we expect too much from the company that brought us Siri, Retina displays, and the ultraportable form factor. Or maybe Apple’s stunning success has made it fat, happy, and no longer hungry. When you’re selling umpteen bajillion units, there’s little incentive to rock the boat.

In contrast, the 2012 edition of IDF San Francisco shows just how aware Intel is that it needs to make inroads into the mobile marketplace, and it needs to do it fast.

Intel IDF 2012 san francisco tablet pc mobile innovation technology conferenceIntel’s command of the PC x86-based processor market is overwhelming to the point of possible illegality, but traditional PC sales are slowing down just as mobile device sales are starting to skyrocket — and ARM processors already have an Intel-like stranglehold on the mobile market thanks to their low cost and energy-efficiency. A full 95 percent of smartphones are estimated to ship with ARM processors inside.

ARM’s dominance threatens Intel in more than just the smartphone arena, however. The mobile market is so crucial and ARM’s presence there is so overwhelming that Microsoft developed Windows RT specifically for tablets with ARM chips. ARM is also working on a 64-bit ARMv8 architecture for future processors, which could help the company seize a chunk of the server market, yet another Intel bedrock.

Intel isn’t sitting idle though. IDF San Francisco is typically a desktop- and server-centric affair, but this year’s conference has focused on laptops and tablets almost to the point of exclusivity.

Innovation shines brightly at IDF 2012

Here are just a few of the innovations on display or being discussed at IDF this week:

A charging system for next-gen Ultrabooks that will provide juice wirelessly and let auxiliary devices like phones power up simply by being placed next to a notebook; an all-in-one desktop with a detachable touchscreen that doubles as a tablet; the NFC-enabled Toshiba Satellite U925T, an Ultrabook that lets you pay for items by placing a MasterCard PayPass card next to the touchpad; voice and gesture controls that will soon come stock in many Ultrabooks; complex software that takes information from a myriad of sensors and information databases to offer personalized recommendations for various things; Intel’s vision of using HTML5 apps and the Cloud to provide a seamless cross-platform mobile experience; several notebooks in new, touch-friendly hybrid-type form factors; Jelly Bean 4.1 running on Intel’s x86 Medfield smartphone processor despite Android’s preference for ARM; and a whole lot more.

intel idf 2012 san francisco voice control gestures laptop innovation technology conferenceThen there were Intel’s next-gen “Haswell” CPUs, which are scheduled to start shipping in mid-2013 and sip just 10W of electricity. That’s still a decent amount compared to ARM chips, but it’s downright stingy for a PC processor; Intel claims Haswell processors are a whopping 20 times more energy efficient than last year’s Sandy Bridge Core processors, and its 2014 line should be even more battery-friendly, as they’ll be the first chips built from the ground up with Ultrabooks in mind. Plus, vast improvements to the integrated graphics in Intel’s Haswell CPUs reduce the need for discrete GPUs — which will make Ultrabooks even more powerful, long-lasting and light.

But what if integrated graphics don’t cut it for you? Lucid showed Laptop Magazine three prototype notebook technologies that could woo desktop-loving curmudgeons over to the mobile side: Power Stretch improves energy use while gaming by over a third, Dynam X slightly reduces image quality to greatly enhance frame rates, and a third technology lets you connect a full-blown desktop graphics card to a notebook using a Thunderbolt port — giving you the ability to get top-end visuals on your laptop, but only when you need it.

High-level graphics are one of the last bastions tying curmudgeons (like me!) to desktop PCs, and even those weren’t safe at IDF.

Meanwhile, the new iPod nano has a pedometer, the updated iTunes includes iCloud integration and Siri can now post your tweets. Yawn. (That iPod touch redesign is purdy, though.)

A word of warning

It’s hard to fault Apple for resting on its laurels for a couple of years. (Remember, aside from Siri, the iPhone 4S was another placeholder — hence the placeholder name.) Tim Cook and co. are on top of the world and when you’re selling millions of units, major alterations can upset a big chunk of your customers. People don’t like change.

But Apple needs to be careful in its quest for homogenous excellence; the iPhone 5 may be one of the best smartphones ever made, but it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. What does a path of stagnation bring? Just look at Intel: years of incremental tick-tock CPU improvements have made it the unquestioned king of the desktop, but that complacence now has the chipmaker fighting to secure its ongoing survival in the rapidly changing world of technology.

Pay heed, Apple. Stay hungry.

Note: this article was edited on 9/15/12 to remove an error concerning Windows compatibility and non-x86-based chips.