It was an odd kind of party. On Wednesday, a crowd of engineers in San Francisco’s Moscone Center waved glow sticks as they waited to see an 18-foot tall statue light up. There'd been a pretty big build-up to "glow time". Over the course of two days at this week's Intel Developer Forum (IDF), a dedicated Intel team had persistently encouraged passerby to sign the statue’s limbs. Some team members also touted parallels between Intel's SiMan (short for Silicon Man) and the statue that’s burned in effigy at Burning Man, a week-long celebration of artistic expression and pretty much everything else that takes place each year in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. I got a range of different answers when I asked what those parallels are.
IDF is a bit like a festival, but its main aim is quite specific: to support development for devices that carry Intel chips. The mix of serious technology and engineered fun produces some incongruities. There are technical sessions and serious vendor displays. But there’s also a DJ, a proliferation of bean bag chairs, an elaborate picture booth showcasing background subtraction technology, and a carnival-game-like table with monitors and keyboards set up for multiplayer games (when I passed, players were using avatars of John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Fidel Castro to kill zombies). One of the more baffling features: a plexiglass box of foam seat cushions bearing the label “It’s a Coaster…For Your Bum”.
On IDF's serious side, the most prominent news out of this year’s conference has been Intel’s Ultrabook, a potential competitor to Apple’s MacBook Air. The first Ultrabook models, which will carry Intel’s 32nm Sandy Bridge processors, will be available toward the end of this year. And computers bearing Intel’s Haswell chips, which will use the firm’s new 22nm 3D transistors, are expected in 2013. Intel says those processors will be low power enough to let the laptops run an entire day off one charge and last for 10 days on standby.
To earn Ultrabook branding, a laptop must carry an Intel processor, and it must meet a set of fairly stringent specifications on factors such as laptop thickness and battery life. I tested a few out, and they seemed competitive with the Air - lightweight but solid and pretty speedy. But getting traction in the market will depend to a large extent on how cheaply Asus, Acer, and other early providers can price the devices. Intel hopes the first Ultrabooks can retail for less than $1000.
Security has also been a big focus at IDF. On Wednesday, Todd Gebhart of McAfee, which was acquired by Intel earlier this year, said an application is in the works to allow users to remotely lock or wipe the data from the Ultrabook (Apple is also working on incorporating this feature into its OS). The company also revealed details on DeepSAFE, security software that's designed to run fairly early in a machine’s boot process. Instead of hunting for individual, potentially malicious files as traditional antivirus or malware detection software does, the new product will monitor the machine for anomalous behavior.
Windows 8, which debuted in parallel at Microsoft’s BUILD conference in Anaheim, California (and spawned a twitter battle), has been a big draw. The introductory technical session was the only one I came across where attendees were turned away because the room was at capacity. And from what I saw of a Windows 8 tablet demo, it seems Microsoft has finally created an OS that is optimized for touch. In the past, I've found Windows tablets difficult to use: they tend to treat your fingertip like a very imprecise mouse cursor.
The sneak peak at Windows 8 has triggered some discussion about how compatible Windows 8 apps for tablets will be with Windows 8 applications for desktops (not at all, it seems). Others have noted that this new OS - Microsoft's most tablet-centric to date - could add to the growing divergence between Microsoft and Intel. Microsoft products now run on competing ARM and AMD processors, and Intel has been working on expanding the suite of operating systems that can run off its chips. The divide was further underscored on Tuesday at IDF, when representatives from Intel and Google announced the two companies will collaborate on optimizing future versions of the Android operating system for Intel’s Atom processors (smart phones currently, by and large, use processors designed by ARM).
Rachel Courtland, an unabashed astronomy aficionado, is a former senior associate editor at Spectrum. She now works in the editorial department at Nature. At Spectrum, she wrote about a variety of engineering efforts, including the quest for energy-producing fusion at the National Ignition Facility and the hunt for dark matter using an ultraquiet radio receiver. In 2014, she received a Neal Award for her feature on shrinking transistors and how the semiconductor industry talks about the challenge.