Intel looks beyond chips to next big computing experience

CTO Justin Rattner sees a bright future in 'context-aware devices'

Executives at Intel, the world's largest chip maker, are rethinking the way they pick technologies to develop -- and they're looking at ideas beyond the computer chip. It's a big step for a company that has made its name by focusing on processors. In recent months, Intel has announced that it's buying security software company McAfee for $7.68 billion and Infineon's wireless chip unit for $1.4 billion. With these acquisitions, the company is getting into the security business -- and giving itself a better footing in the mobile computing market.

In an interview with Computerworld, Intel Chief Technology Officer Justin Rattner talked about taking Intel in a new direction, coming up with the idea for Google TV and the future of tablets and netbooks. Excerpts from that interview follow:

It sounds like you're making some major shifts inside Intel. What's going on? The commitment to chips is still there. For most of Intel's history, we were driven by what could be done instead of what should be done. A few developments at Intel caused us to rethink the company.

OK, so what caused this rethinking? It was our work on smart TV; emerging markets and the Classmate, and our work in digital health.... All three are driven by how people relate to the technology. For instance, how do kids feel about technology? What do they like? What do they not like? How do you make it fit? Instead of putting a PC down in front of them and saying, 'Look, it's Windows 7.' We wanted to see what they need.

So are you rethinking the way you decide what technologies are developed? I think very much so. We've seen that it's no longer the best technology that prevails in the marketplace. It's not the camera or the number of pixels or megabytes of memory. It's if I enjoy the device or am I constantly at odds with my device.

But why move beyond chips? The company wants to grow beyond the PC business. As we move out into areas like phones and TV and health, we're not so constrained. We developed a smart TV design. We had a specific experience in mind and then built the silicon for the experience.

Are you saying that Intel came up with the idea for Google TV? Intel designed the Google TV experience and took it to Google. Google said that's not the experience we've been thinking about, but that's the silicon we need. By thinking of the experience, it affects the building of the silicon. We actually know the experience we're trying to create and then we build the right silicon.

So what's the next computing experience that Intel engineers are working on now? Context-aware devices. We're talking about what it means for a device to be context aware and that changes the relationship between user and owner. We want to give these machines the ability to fuse the hard senses (like where you are and are you dancing or riding a bike?) and soft sensor information, like your calendar, your to-do list and your social networks.

How could context-aware devices change the way we live day to day? When I get in the car in the morning, I want a screen to come up and tell me, "There's construction on Rte. 26" or "It's going to rain, go back in the house for a hat and umbrella." Context is really about life. These devices [today] know very little about our lives.

How will social networking fit into this vision of context-aware devices? Social networking becomes part of this soft sensor notion.... It will be a key source of information for your devices. Who are your friends? What are you doing? We think a lot about it. Your social network will be used by your devices to know you've got an interview with Justin and it can tell your friends and colleagues that you're talking with Justin.

Since we're talking about devices, what do you think about the future of the tablet, the netbook and the notebook? We haven't reached the ultimate evolution of the tablet. It's somewhere between the notebook of today and the iPad.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at  @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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