As markets change, dominant companies lose that dominance. That rule has seldom been broken, but at Intel's Developer Conference this week, Intel is making a solid effort. While the PC market is forecast to continue to grow at 18 percent for the next few years and 1 million PCs a day are being shipped into the market-most of them using Intel technology-interest has clearly shifted to smartphones, tablets and a growing number of embedded devices that will include cars and appliances.
The vast majority of this new stuff is based on the ARM architecture, which historically has had cost and energy-efficiency advantages over Intel. But Intel is moving to close that gap and is aggressively arguing that its advantages over ARM, even now, might overcome its disadvantages in many areas.
Let's talk about some of them.
For most of the '80s and '90s, the PC market didn't take security seriously, which lead to a massive wave of viruses that nearly took a number of nations to their knees. In many ways, these new markets are worse because they are made up of vendors who never felt the need for security software, given their devices couldn't install applications or weren't networked to begin with. However, with concepts like the smart grid that are networking appliances and smartphones, not only are these things becoming Internet-aware, they increasingly can install applications. Malware is generally an application that does bad things. Thus, with the combination of network connectivity and ever-more-capable operating systems, vulnerabilities are rising to the level of those affecting PCs, but the ecosystem for these devices is a decade or so behind.
While we measure PCs in millions, we measure phones in billions and the number of embedded systems that eventually will be connected could easily rival that of cell phones in the future. This means that commonality and simplicity will be critical to those managing and securing these massive numbers. So Intel's prime lever into these emerging markets is its decades-old knowledge about how to deal with similar problems in PCs, and Intel recently bought McAfee to enhance this capability further.
This has never been an Intel strength; it has often been considered an under-performer in graphics capabilities compared with companies such as Nvidia. However, Intel recognizes that future tablets and smartphones increasingly will run content similar to that on a PC and has apparently been putting a great deal of work into its graphics capability.
Showcasing rich graphics, Intel imagined a future where you could wirelessly share what was on your personal device, be it PC or tablet, by broadcasting to TVs nearby.
Sandy Bridge: Not Giving Up on PCs
Amid technology changes, one of the problems is that dominant vendors often tend to simply give up on the technology they know. Clearly that isn't the case here. Intel has introduced its strongest PC technology to date in Sandy Bridge. A blended GPU/CPU solution targeting all-in-one and laptop computers initially and servers eventually, this represents a strong counterpoint to the idea that the PC is no longer a growing platform. The only negative I've overheard was that folks who saw the demonstration were disappointed that they couldn't buy the one of the machines today. This was from an audience that has tended to favor iPad-like devices over PCs for a while now.
Wrapping Up: Storms Ahead, but Intel Might Have the Right Boat
Clearly Intel knows it is heading into stormy seas where the outcome is far from certain. However, it isn't ignoring the threat or abandoning its strengths to better address it. This has the feel of a measured approach to the problem, and at this standing-room-only event thoughts that Intel's future will be bright seemed to dominate. As long as you can keep developers and partners excited about your products, your future is assured. At this conference, Intel easily met that bar.