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Intel's Post-PC Strategy: 4 Takeaways

From wearable technology to $100 tablets to city infrastructure, Intel plans to puts its chips in almost everything. And Moore's Law lives.

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Intel's processors once dominated the computing landscape, but the company has been under pressure as chips based on the rival ARM architecture have become the preferred engine for not only mobile devices, but also a new breed of data center technologies.

At this week's Intel Developer Forum (IDF) in San Francisco, CEO Brian Krazanich outlined how the company plans to maintain its stature. The speech marked his first major appearance since succeeding Paul Otellini in May, and his message was, in a sense, simple: Intel intends to put a chip in almost everything.

Krazanich stressed that the company is still committed to innovation in the floundering PC space. He also argued that new manufacturing processes will help the company catch up to ARM in the mobile space. But his keynote address also emphasized wearable technology and the Internet of Things. How will this vision change Intel's trajectory? Here are four takeaways from Intel's IDF presentation.

1. Quark is a new line of processors designed for wearable technology and the Internet of Things.

Quark, which Krazanich introduced for the first time this week, is one-fifth the size of Intel's low-power Atom processors, which are used in mobile devices. With such tiny dimensions, the chip is designed to be an ultra energy-efficient component in wearable products and connected devices.

[ Wearable tech for your health: 10 Wearable Health Tech Devices To Watch. ]

Krazanich and Intel president Renée James argued that the technology could be paradigm-changing. Doctors currently rely on isolated tests to gauge patient health, but a wearable product could provide a perpetual stream of information, leading to better and earlier detection of diseases. A city could likewise benefit by embedding sensors in its infrastructure and using collected data to better understand traffic flows, environmental pollutants and other complex variables that affect governance. Intel has worked on ideas like this before, but at IDF, where the CEO showed off Intel reference designs for wearable devices, Quark opened up a new chapter.

Intel isn't the only one who has this vision, however; Cisco executives have repeatedlytalked about the same opportunities. Forrester Research, meanwhile, has said wearable technology could be as game changing as the iPhone. Although the potential effects of connected devices might be clear, Intel's place in it is still hazy. One question is how manufacturers will take advantage of Quark chips. Intel said that unlike ARM, it will not license Quark's core CPU; instead, it will provide hooks to which companies can attach their own IP.

2. Intel still believes in PCs.

The PC market's decline has contributed to Intel's recent struggles, but the company still sees room for innovation. Its fourth-generation – a.k.a. Haswell -- Core processor began shipping in new products over the summer, and it has delivered substantial battery life improvements. Apple's Haswell-based MacBook Air can run for up to 12 hours without a recharge, and Microsoft is expected to launch a Haswell-equipped Surface with at least seven hours of battery life.

But Krazanich repeatedly stressed that such advancements "aren't good enough"-- and the slow market seems to agree. The CEO said Intel has another Haswell variant coming, called Haswell Y, that will consume only 4.5 W of power, low enough to build a fanless Core i7 notebook.

Krazanich said Intel will soon bring its next-generation Broadwell chip to market, and that it will improve power consumption by 30% relative to today's Haswell models. The implication is that laptops will soon be as lightweight and battery-efficient as any tablet, and that powerful tablets could be better served by a Broadwell chip than an ARM one.

Haswell is based on a 22-nanometer manufacturing process, but Broadwell will move to a 14-nm process, which will drive its efficiency. Krazanich demonstrated a functioning Broadwell-based laptop during his IDF presentation.

3. Intel is gearing up to fight in mobile.

Intel's Atom processors are currently also-rans in the mobile race, but Krazanich said devices with its new Bay Trail Atom chip will be on sale by the end of the year, and that both Android and Windows 8 models will be available. Like the Haswell Core processors, Bay Trail will use Intel's 22-nm process, which Krazanich said will deliver longer battery life and 50% better performance. The CEO also said that Intel smartphones will soon boast LTE support with carrier aggregation, which will enable data transfers up to a blazing 150 Mbps.

Even if Intel is successful, though, it will face questions. Mobile devices earn lower margins than PCs, for example, which means Intel can't simply replace Core shipments with Atom shipments; rather, the company will need to ship higher volumes than in the past.

Krazanich said an Atom chip based on the 14-nm process will be out by the end of 2014. He also said that Intel-based tablets will soon cost less than $100. Presumably, he was referring to Android tablets, though Windows 8 slates should be more affordable as well.

4. Intel doesn't believe Moore's Law is dead.

Intel president Renée James quipped at IDF that the demise of Moore's Law has been predicted for decades. But as Intel's current dive into 22nm and 14nm processes might suggests, Moore's Law is "alive and well," she said. Krazanich repeatedly mentioned the superiority of Intel's manufacturing processes, and said the company projects it will produce 10-nm chips in 2015 and 7-nm chips in 2017. A recent keynote speaker at the Hot Chip conference at Stanford University predicted Moore's Law will finally wind down by 2022, which supports Intel's claim that several more generations of improvement are in the pipeline. The question in at least the short term, though, is whether Intel can leverage its manufacturing prowess to get back in the mobile game.

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