Intel's Next Wave: Transparent Computing
This year's Intel Developer Forum (IDF) has come and gone and the troops are all psyched up over yet another slick marketing slogan that Intel is so good at crafting. This year's theme was noted as being: The next era of computing: Transparent Computing. There was a definite disconnect between their slick new theme and what they actually delivered during their three main keynotes. Yet, there were a handful of points and future features worth noting, especially one integrating NFC into Ultrabook trackpads for ecommerce. Yet the big breakthrough that Intel shared with the world at IDF 2012, was their ongoing work in digital radios and how that will help wireless carriers save money building out their LTE infrastructure using the cloud and more importantly, eventually allowing carriers to implement next generation wireless standards quicker. Intel's Justin Ratner stated that "This software-defined radio design offers the versatility to add new radio protocols over time as they're introduced with a simple software upgrade." For tech buffs, that's certainly a breakthrough worth noting.
Transparent Computing: HTML5, Cloud Services & Security
One of the main themes pushed at IDF in San Francisco earlier this month was that of Transparent Computing. Renee James, senior vice president and general manager of the Software and Services Group at Intel Corporation, outlined her vision for transparent computing. James stated that this concept will only be made possible through an "open" development ecosystem where software developers write code that will run across multiple environments and devices. It's about allowing experiences to seamlessly cross different platforms, both architectures and operating system platform boundaries. It makes extensive use of technologies like HTML5 and cloud services. And in the end, transactions and experiences have to be backed by industrial strength security.
According to James, "Consumers don't care about the operating system. And sadly, and as much as we would not like it to be true, they don't always care about the hardware architecture underlying their experience. What they care about is the task they're trying to perform, or the information that they're trying to get to. What they want is that their iPad and the apps that they download will work on their Galaxy phone and on their Ultrabook."
That might be an ideal for some and in the bigger picture it may even be the way that it should be. But for the more than 100 million iPad owners in the marketplace today, the idea of owning an iPad and a Galaxy phone is wishful thinking at best – and that's being polite.
"While HTML 5 has been overhyped," admits James, "Intel now believes that HTML 5 is emerging as a credible solution. We're committed to making sure that HTML5 remains open, cross-platform, and has the right performance. Intel is working hard to ensure HTML5 will better handle video, 3D, audio and interactive capabilities on devices running Intel architecture.
Intel believes that HTML5 is now ready and capable of delivering robust applications. The interest is growing with developers. We have continued to do surveys of developers to find out where things are going, and 40 percent of those surveyed said that they are already using HTML5 in some way in their development, and the other 40 percent of the survey developers said they planned to use it.
We believe that HTML5 as the application programming language is what can deliver a seamless and consistent environment across the different platforms – across PCs, tablets, telephones, and into the car.
Intel Cloud Services for Developers
Moving onto the second aspect of Transparent Computing, James briefly touched on future cloud services. James stated that "Cloud-based services right now are kind of wimpy. They do the basics, you know, like share a file. They're not as live as they could be. They need a little more electricity running through them. People don't really need a lot of parking places in the sky. And that's where I think a lot of people tend to think of cloud as just a place to put stuff. I would just encourage any cloud service to really be out there as a real live thing, making as much action-oriented data happen as possible."
James confirmed that Intel is working on an integrated set of cloud services for developers that Intel would host that would give some of the core elements required to really realize their vision around transparent computing. Some of them would be location services while others would include digital storefronts, federated identity attestation, backend services and much more. Intel will roll them out to developers over the course of the year which should mean that consumers will begin to see these new cloud services emerge over the next 12-18 months.
We'll skip the third leg of Transparent Computing that involves cloud based security due to the fact that Intel acquired McAfee in 2010 and it sounded more like a sales pitch for that division rather than being a real message for transparent computing. Yet with that said, security and security features did in fact sneak back into the spotlight on day three of IDF via Justin Ratner's keynote which covered a segment on biometric Authentication.
Another theme of interest related to biometrics surfaced at IDF. Although this technology has been around for a few years now, Intel's Justin Ratner decided to touch on Fujitsu's PalmSecure scanner as a means to promote next generation security and ease of use. Instead of having to remember dozens of passwords, a user will be able to simply hold the palm of their hand up to their device's specialty scanner/camera as noted in our graphic below.
An Intel engineer claimed that a palm print is more accurate than a fingerprint and it's also harder for a thief to properly lift from a user's display or keyboard. Today, the technology is primarily available for the desktop, but in the not-too-distant future, the scanning technology will be built into smaller form factors such as smartphones and tablets.
Intel's demo of the palm print scanner was a little rough in that their rep was simply showing the scanner noted above literally taped to a Windows 8 tablet. By not having a slick prototype made specifically for their demo made it look more like a grade five show-and-tell contraption. Yet to be fair, the impression was left that both Intel and Microsoft were working to miniaturize the scanner for future handhelds and tablets. At this stage, I wouldn't be holding my breath on this one as it'll likely take a good two or three years before we see this in the marketplace. Though it certainly sounds like a promising security feature.
Whether Apple will consider this form of biometric security solution for any future hardware is unknown at this time, though they're clearly on record as owning multiple advanced facial recognition systems for future iDevices and Macs. Yet the biometric scanner for palm-prints would be a great alternative.
"Increasingly the most popular but also the most cumbersome and frightening activities are e-commerce," stated Ratner. "Today, you have to fill in a lot of personal information, you put in your credit card, you have to remember the password that's used for Amazon, which hopefully is different than the password that you use for your other accounts, and who remembers all that? So some people write it down on a small piece of paper or in their computers to remember that. Some people have it very simple, the name of their dog. How easy for any hacker to do. We have to solve these problems because people would love to use their devices, their computers, either mobile or stationary, to solve these problems. And who is better to talk about that than MasterCard? So I'd like to invite Gary Flood, who is the President of Global Products and Services of MasterCard to talk to me about a collaboration of a solution that we have. Good morning, Gary."
Mr. Flood began his segment: "I mean, when we take a step back and think about what we need to do at MasterCard, we need to enable commerce. So that means we need to make the experience better for consumers and merchants. On the consumer side, all those credentials can really be cumbersome, right? So you want to create an environment where it's easy for them to buy. At the same time, though, you really have to think hard about merchants. You can't get too intrusive on the merchant side. They're there to sell stuff and make money. So the idea is making it easy and frictionless."
PayPass Wallet Services
"We spent a lot of time assessing and figuring out what might make the most sense. And in May, we announced PayPass Wallet Services, which combines a couple different attributes. Number one, it's open. Historically, MasterCard has been one that's flexible as an organization and network. We work hard at that. The second aspect of PayPass Wallet Services is that it is capable of being white-labeled. So, it doesn't have to be done our way. We're open and flexible to what other developers may want to do. There may be different components they may want to use, and others they may not want to. So, we have to retain that flexibility, which is extremely important. And the third aspect is accessibility. When we think about it, we want ubiquitous acceptance. So, there's going to be a ton of wallets out there. Those wallets are going to need acceptance. So, through our open API, we'll enable partners and their solutions to work their way into our processes.
We can work hard at making it easy, but you've got to make it secure. As you conduct these sales around the world, this is not just [local] but rather worldwide. There's a tremendous opportunity with cross-border e-commerce that still isn't being realized, and this technology puts you in a situation where you can make better decisions.
The second part is actually enabling Ultrabooks with NFC PayPass, the convenience of tapping a card or a phone on a device and completing a sale. So, I think it's fundamentally got two wonderful things that are going to help us advance forward.
Intel put on a brief demo: "So, here is the first part, where I have a MasterCard PayPass NFC-enabled credit card. So, NFC is a great technology for easy use. It allows us to pair up multiple devices in concert or be able to do a tap and pay just like we said, but NFC in itself is not security. So, what we've done is gone ahead and partnered and put an individual cypher in this card as well as paired up with MasterCard PayPass cloud in order to authenticate those two items together. And once they complete their cypher, then they can go ahead and give you that extra level of security. But, we go one step further. With Intel identity protection technology, we're now able to add a device level authentication that we have coming out of this machine to make sure that this is my card, that this is my laptop, and this is the cloud that I'm authenticating with, with all my credentials."
That sounds great, though I think that Intel and MasterCard have to work on integrating the very biometric feature that was introduced earlier: The Palm Print scan. There still has to be a step that foils the hacker. If the Palm Print is only stored in the cloud, then the security would be closer to fail safe. The Palm Print could be a very fast and convenient means of security.
By the way, is that a MacBook design below?
Advancing Hand Gesturing
"So let's move to something which is more exciting than voice," Intel's Perlmutter stated. That wasn't a slight at Apple's Siri. Earlier in their presentation they did a demo on bringing a Siri-like service to future Intel Ultrabooks and to be fair it was a decent demo with a voice almost indistinguishable from Siri. Then again the demo used Nuance's "Dragon Assistant" Beta: Hence the similarity to Siri.
So beyond voice controls, Perlmutter moved onto advanced gesturing. Perlmutter stated that "we have been working with Creative and SoftKinetic to make several things which are really different. First is the 3D camera. It is first going to be on top of the machine, the device. But it was shrunk significantly compared to other 3D cameras. And it was brought down by cost and by power, because this one is powered by the USB device. And you know that in the future – it will take a year or two. And like the old cameras we used to have on top of our computers and were integrated into the platform, this will be integrated too. And this is also a near-term gesture, and it has the capability to recognize not just the hand gesture but also the hand and finger movements. So we'll see my capability of being able to hit [the target, see below, applause, applause)."
The demo presented in the slide below is a user pulling back a catapult and firing it on a structure only using hand gesturing and pinching. There could be a lot of potential for such hand gesturing recognition in the future.
Perlmutter concluded that "This is just the very beginning of bringing in new capabilities. So whoever thinks that touch is the end of the innovation, this is just the beginning. And you'll imagine what kind of capability is going to be there, because we're playing in our lab with an ability to catch all kind of objects."
Next Generation Broadband Infrastructures
The following segment from Ratner's IDF keynote truly marked a breakthrough in radio technology. "As the mobile computing revolution continues to drive the explosion of data creation, consumption, and sharing .Wireless operators worldwide are exploring new ways to approach the build-out of their next-generation broadband network infrastructures.
Historically, those networks have been based on proprietary hardware that is both expensive and difficult to maintain and upgrade hardware platforms that require so much power and cooling that the cost of electricity can represent over 40 percent of ongoing operating costs.
In the current approach, base stations have no ability to share capability with other sales sites on the network. Each base station must be designed to support maximum loads during peak times for the particular cell area it supports. The result is an infrastructure model in which valuable network intelligence and computing resources are dramatically underutilized.
But now, by combining open architecture servers with fiber optic backhaul, operators can centralize network intelligence in the cloud, utilizing a virtualized environment where resources can be allocated to different base stations on demand when and where they're needed.
In the C-RAN architecture, radio protocols are implemented using software-defined radios in the cloud, rather than hardware at each tower. And research projects have already shown that a complete LTE-based station stack can be implemented in software running on a modern IA processor. This software-defined radio design offers the versatility to add new radio protocols over time as they're introduced with a simple software upgrade.
With software-defined radio running on hundreds or even thousands of IA-based servers, a modern datacenter can replace much of the computing hardware traditionally installed in base station towers scattered across a wide-area cellular network.
The result is a total C-RAN-based solution that not only reduces both capital and operating expenses, but allows operators to bring new services online faster and with greater flexibility than ever before, ensuring the future potential of the mobile computing revolution for generations to come.
In China, Intel is working on this next generation C-RAN with China Mobile Research Institute, the largest wireless service provider in the world with more than 680 million subscribers. They currently have about a million base stations throughout China. Their goal is to have roughly one third of these base stations upgraded to 4G LTE. Such a huge undertaking would have hit the company's bottom line if it weren't for Intel's next generation wireless infrastructure solution based on C-RAN."
Chief Scientist of China Mobile Research Institute Dr. Chih-Lin joined Intel's Justin Ratner on stage to describe why they chose to work with Intel on this project. Chih-Lin stated "I think we all know that Intel Labs is a premier R&D lab in the world, but more so in the sense that in the challenge we are facing today, we need to make our radio access network much more power-efficient and much more cost-effective.
The traditional standalone base stations really cannot meet that need. And with the large number of cell sites, you know, our power consumption last year was like 30 billion kilowatt hours of power was consumed by us, and 70 percent of that was in the base stations. So we need to make this part much more power-efficient and cost-effective.
Plus, our deployment is getting denser and denser, so the interference across cell sites is becoming a big problem. And we need a clever way to turn that interference into use for signal. "Chih-Lin continued by stating that while "we are very happy with the exponential growth of the traffic, we're not very happy with the fact that our revenue is not growing proportionally, so we need to be much more cost-effective. And all of that leads us to the C-RAN."
Behind the scenes, Intel and China Mobile have been secretly working on this project since 2009. So the C-RAN project isn't siting on a theoretical drawing board idle somewhere in an Intel lab – it's actually being worked on and slowly rolling out in China today. Once software defined radios are implemented on a grand scale, leaping to 5G, or whatever the next standard is, will have the potential of rolling much faster than with any previous standard in history. Introducing faster wireless services to market will allow for cooler features and much richer video conferencing, FaceTime calling and/or live events on the fly. That's definitely an Intel breakthrough worth noting. It might not appear to be as glamorous a breakthrough as the iPhone was or get the press it richly deserves, but it will one day push the entire industry ahead and allow for superior wireless services – and we'll have Intel to thank for that.
Vending Machines are about to go High Tech
A Next-Gen Coke Machine with NFC & More: On a lighter note, Intel revealed that that they're working with SIA interactive to bring the next generation of vending machine to the world that's interactive. Above is an Intel graphic of the world's first next-gen Coke machine. There's only one in operation somewhere in South America at the moment, and it's being designed to run on an Intel Core A7 with an NFC camera.
This is certainly only the tip of the iceberg. The next wave of vending machines, the "Smart Vending Machine" is definitely on its way to market and the potential is enormous. I could imagine being in an in-mall photo-booth and having a Siri-like voice say to me: "Okay, are you ready? Okay, Smile … or … Cheese!" It'll happen. Or perhaps that smart Coke machine will one day say something like: Hello, by the looks of your teeth, perhaps you would be better off choosing an ice cold bottle of water." Okay, that's when you could kick the machine as you've always done when it misbehaves. Rude little bugger - Ha!
At the End of the Day
In 2008 Intel was talking about being on the cusp of a whole new industry. It was here where we presented a video of Intel's head of marketing giving a presentation. At around the 7:40 mark of that video, you'll hear Mr. MacDonald begin a diatribe of the iPhone not having the real internet because it couldn't reach YouTube and in order to have the "true internet in your pocket" experience you'll need to have an Intel SoC – System-on-Chip based handheld. You know – the ones that never got off the ground. How embarrassing.
Then during IDF 2010, Intel introduced another vision called MeeGo that would unite the world's developers to take on Apple. Now that's dead. Then during IDF 2011, they boldly announced that it was time to reinvent the PC Platform again! That's a full two years after Intel's CEO Paul Otellini had said that they were building a continuum of computing that basically wrote off the future of the PC altogether.
Going back to Mr. MacDonald's 2008 presentation, he said that "Intel is a semiconductor company and we get paid when we sell silicon." And that's what comes across when Intel put's on their IDF dog and pony show each year. They have slick slogans and grand themes for the coming year that are simply generated from a marketing machine that's not in-tune with the industry or at least consumers. Their themes aren't connected but rather disjointed. Intel's so-called "visions" clash and bump into each other – if not downright contradict each other.
At times Intel almost sounds desperate as in the case of their software division openly praying for a way to topple Apple's scorching successful App Store. Remember the line" What they want is that their iPad and the apps that they download will work on their Galaxy phone and on their Ultrabook." Only an Intel executive could see things that way. I still shake my head at that point. Though playind Devils Advocate for a moment, this could be beneficial for Apple to a certain degree in business in the long haul.
At the end of the day, this year's IDF wasn't that much different than most. Yes, Intel had a new slick marketing theme of "next era of computing: transparent computing." But in the end, very little innovation was presented that mattered along the very theme that they claimed. And although it's true that their long-range digital radio and C-RAN breakthrough is significant, it won't do much for OEM's pushing Intel's silicon in a dying market today or next quarter.
At the end of the day I continue to slam Intel because the industry needs to have them firing on all cylinders again; firing up the tech sector so that innovation is thriving at every turn. Apple can't be the innovation machine for the tech sector. It needs to have another strong wing. Oddly the good news is that Microsoft appears to be ready to awaken from a decade of slumber. Believe it or not, I'm actually hoping that Wintel could once again deliver some kind of their own style of excitement back into the market, because that would be beneficial for consumers everywhere.
In April of this year, Apple's CEO Tim Cook stated that he loved competition as long if they make their own stuff. Good competitors thrive on competition to push each other forward. Friction has always produced fire since the very beginning of time. It's time to reignite the flames of competition and ignite a new era of fiery innovation.