The Near Term Future of Intel (with Implications for Apple)

Clearly, Intel has been in a funk lately. AMD has been hitting them so regularly that the old Intel Bunny Men are looking more like punching bags than mascots. At the Intel Developer?s Forum (IDF), where Intel talks to those who develop on their platforms, Intel went to a great deal of trouble to create the impression that they are coming back with a vengeance.

Uniquely to this IDF, there are strong implications for what Apple will have in the second half; for the first time in history, there is a promise that we will see the hardware OEMs (including Apple) go at each other with nearly identical technology. In addition, both Apple and Microsoft are expected to have new versions of their operating systems. It will be an interesting year.

Intel Viiv Simplicity Defined

I have to admit, I haven?t been a big fan of Viiv. I haven?t been able to explain it and view it as just another way to put a meaningless sticker on my PC. Until this week, the only demo I had seen with Viiv was watching someone turn off the Media Center, while someone else uninterruptedly continued to stream video from it. Interesting, but hardly earth-shattering.

At IDF, they showcased the key advantage of Vista, and there is a massive improvement in ease of use. I?m a big fan of this approach; most of us are spending too much time trying to get stuff to work. As a result, we generally don?t get all of the benefit from the things we buy; in fact, some things go on a shelf, never to be seen again. 

Think of being able to set up a secure network in 3-1/2 minutes after you have plugged in the hardware. The key here is ?secure;? many of us can set up a network quickly, but often the result isn?t particularly secure. This creates problems, including getting the movie companies to allow us to rip movies and use them around the home.

Part of this networking advantage lies in portable devices, which can be connected wirelessly in a few seconds. This uses a process similar to how you currently set up wireless keyboards and mice. (And if you?ve ever tried to get a cell phone or PDA to work in a secure fashion on a wireless network, you know how it takes much longer than the one-button process Intel showcased.)

Finally, your media can move seamlessly around your home and to your selected devices. This is cool; Viiv is starting to make sense. We?ll see if Intel and its partners can keep this promise (we won?t know until the end of the year).

Intel Builds a Communicator

A few weeks ago, I spoke about the Communicator platform, and at IDF, Intel revealed the similar Ultra Mobile PC (UMPC). The UMPC is a wireless device that embodies much of what I envisioned for the Communicator. As it matures, the UMPC could transform the market. (Check out the video at http://www.umpc.com/.)

Think of it:  A small device that in one package can do everything a laptop, camera/phone, PDA, Blackberry, and GPS system can do. In addition, it?s priced in line with the cost of a good portable GPS system.

Key to its success are five factors:  Ease of use, customization, keyboard (for text entry), battery life, and connectivity. The UMPC has the potential to be one of the biggest things this market has ever seen.

Intel Performance

It wouldn?t be IDF if there wasn?t a solid performance message. This time, Intel clearly had AMD in their sights. By a series of their products? massive performance improvements, Intel hit the ball back into AMD?s court. With Microsoft?s Vista operating system coming out at the same time, Intel showed how they have the higher performing solution.

Clearly, we won?t know until final systems ship.  But Intel presented their case strongly, suggesting they can match AMD, if not beat them. One of the technologies they showcased was the use of flash memory to increase system performance. By using flash, they can cut application load times dramatically; this has a huge impact on games (which load much more quickly from memory than from drives.) For us gamers, the game will load more quickly, we will be able to move between zones more quickly, and scenes pop more quickly.

This could keep you alive longer and overcome the problem of teams breaking apart before all team members can get to the same zone. The biggest improvement would be with laptop computers; for those of us who play games on our laptops, this is a good thing.

Laptops

Speaking of laptops, Intel showcased cool tablets. Rather than having a swivel screen, the base of one laptop?s screen slid forward, allowing the screen to fall back on top of the keyboard to make the tablet. You then can more easily turn a larger laptop into a movie machine (for those of us who fly coach, and are tired of the bigger boxes getting intimate with our stomachs). 

Another prototype had a sliding display mount; it slid both forward and up, putting the screen at a more comfortable height and allowing you to put your fingers on the keyboard (under the screen)?you then could actually work on a larger notebook in coach.

These are the most innovative tablet designs since the first swivel design.  The result is more compelling.

Implications for Apple

During the Viiv presentation, Intel credited Apple for doing a fantastic design job, then pointed out that they were working to do Apple one better. The example was a voice-activated remote that beat Apple?s 6 button remote by, well, 6 buttons.

Apple is now an Intel developer; while I didn?t see an Apple person at the event, I have no doubt there were several. The Apple folks aren?t stupid.

Apple gets design. I have little doubt they saw a number of things from Intel and realized they now (as an Intel developer) can use any of it, too. Traditionally, the OEMs have been rather conservative when it comes to the more advanced concepts. This is why (even though Intel has done some wild things) laptops and desktops really haven?t changed much.

Apple isn?t conservative. I expect that many of the concepts we saw will be improved and released by that company in the second half.

It?s worth the wait to discover whether the WinTel OEMs or Apple make the best use of this technology. I am looking forward to the fourth quarter, when we find out just how far some of these folks are willing to go.

I have little doubt Apple will swing for the fences. I wonder how many of the WinTel OEMs will do the same?

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.