I’ve just written up for The Reg a news story based on one of the most interesting interviews I’ve done since moving here to Hong Kong: Intel Labs China’s chief scientist, Randolph Wang.
There wasn’t enough time to put everything in that piece so here’s the unabridged version (unfortunately without pics as most of the gadgets mentioned here have never formally been shown to the public).
Wang joined the labs around three and a half years ago but spoke about the recent launch of Intel’s SD card-sized computer Edison with the zeal and excitement of a start-up founder.
This is probably pretty accurate, since he told me the labs function “more like a start-up” than part of a global chip behemoth.
He walked me through the process by which Edison was developed in those labs, by as few as 10-20 people on average, with the focus on “creating something new”, not reliant on preconceived notions on buzzwords; of “going to work, playing around and having fun”.
It started life apparently as an actual smart SD card which they plugged into an off-the-shelf camera and went about seeing what applications they could run on it.
The idea of a “slave device” soon became limiting, however, but they decided to keep the size, pluggable form factor and self-contained design and work with that.
“Over time we got rid of the constraints, so the SD card could be born to tell the device about it – to be a master not a slave,” he said. Eventually they got rid of the final constraint by building devices (30-40 odd of them) themselves to fully exploit the potential of Edison.
At this time the idea was not just to build simple, box-like prototypes but, in partnership with Tsinghua university’s industrial design department, to “build something beautiful”.
He told me about a pair of “crystal speakers” made of a transparent material where the light inside responds to the music being played, or of a smart bird feeder – as described in The Reg article – which recognises which bird lands on it, takes and pic and sends an alert out to the owner if it’s an interesting breed.
Another project he was keen to promote was the porcelain cup demoed by CEO Brian Krzanich on stage at CES last month.
“There’s an LED matrix embedded in the cup wall that allows the cup to display subtle info or alerts. At CES, our CEO Brian Krzanich demonstrated that the porcelain cup was working with the baby monitors (also powered by Edison) developed by Boston area start-up, Rest Devices,” he explained.
“If the baby’s respiration or temperature info is abnormal, the cup displays alert info. Alternatively, one can put applications in the cup so that it displays current temperature, or current Intel stock price, or as I was saying, with a pair of cups, the boyfriend cup lights up when the girlfriend puts coffee in her cup.”
What excited him so much was that the cup was made in a town called Jingdezhen, which has been making ultra-thin, high quality porcelain for over 1,700 years. Being so thin enables the light to shine through better, he explained.
This is a remarkable story of marrying 2000 year old craftsmanship with the latest silicon technology. But it’s more than that. The town, though famous, is located in an impoverished area. One of the things talked about by the proponents of the “Maker revolution” is the idea of spawning new industries and generating new wealth at the most unlikely places, because the democratising effect of the “Maker phenomenon”. There’s a local “porcelain research institute” that we’re collaborating with, who see great potential in producing a new line of porcelain married with the latest cutting edge Intel technology to open new markets, thus breathing new life into an ancient local industry.
This kind of thing is not the end but the beginning for Edison, and with true SoCs, in which everything including Flash and DDR memory is on-die, set to land in a couple of years there’s the potential for the micro-computer to be made even smaller and cheaper in future.
The strength of the project will, however, depend on how developers take to it, Wang concluded.
“Each Edison-powered device is meant to house multiple applications that users can download into them and third-party application writers could write for. And these things can work together,” he said.
“We’ve tried to do something with the best intentions but I’m fairly certain that the best is yet to come and probably not from inside but outside.”
From Intel Inside to Intel Outside in a few short decades.
Spent a fascinating day at Intel’s Penang facility a week ago today with The Register. Up until now it’s been something of a hidden gem for Chipzilla but, as the largest plant outside of the US, it’s a key part of its Asia and global operations.
So exactly why is it such a big deal for Intel? Well it was its first ever foray outside the US some 40-odd years ago and now employs over 6,000 designers and engineers. Crucially it acts as a hub for Intel’s other plants across Asia, providing training and support for engineers from newer facilities in Chengdu, Bangalore and most recently Vietnam.
As if any more proof were needed of its importance to Intel, the firm’s global VP of the Technology and Manufacturing Group, Robin Martin, is based there.
We learned that having everything from product development and design to testing and manufacturing on one site means the firm can respond much quicker to changing market demands and keep up with faster development cycles demanded by today’s mobile computing trends.
Perhaps an even more interesting story, though, is the emergence of Malaysia and Penang as an IT destination during the past 40 years. I spoke to Datuk Noharuddin Nordin, CEO of MIDA, the government’s investment and development agency, who admitted that the reason Intel was lured to the country in the early ‘70s was purely based on cost.
However, the government has taken that early investment and managed to grow it, attracting more big electronics MNCs with skilled labour, solid IPR protection and cheap land.
“We must remember MNCs come here because they want the greatest margins,” he said. “We have to anticipate what’s round the corner and create systems which will help to prepare for that.”
It’s not done a bad job. Intel on its own has invested $4bn in Malaysia over the past 40 years and other big names including Motorola, AMD, Western Digital, Renesas, Bosch and many more have all joined Chipzilla in Penang. Nordin claimed such investment has managed to help to move local firms up the value chain, nurture world class IT talent in Malaysia’s universities and attract MNCs from other related industries like aerospace, medical equipment and automotive.
As we walked through the old colonial streets of Georgetown that evening I couldn’t help but think Penang has come a long way since its days as a British East India Company trading port.
Whether it can continue to lead in the future remains to be seen, with hugely ambitious Asian rivals like China coming up fast. However, alongside Taiwan, Malaysia has something of a first mover advantage in Southeast Asia which will be hard to match in the near-term.
Lenovo has been talking up its move into the US smartphone market this week, as global PC sales continue to stagnate, but the analysts I spoke to are far from convinced that the Chinese hardware giant can repeat its success in the traditional computing space.
CEO Yang Yuanqing told the WSJ that the firm would be taking aim at the US mobile space within a year. You can’t argue that it doesn’t represent a “new opportunity” for growth, given that PC shipments are still falling in most markets around the world.
In Western Europe they declined by the biggest ever amount in the last quarter – down 20 per cent year-on-year – and even in the still healthy Chinese market they are only forecast to grow by 3-4 per cent this year.
So can the hardware behemoth, which recently became the world’s number one PC vendor, tap a user trend which is seeing more and more gravitate towards mobile devices instead of traditional notebooks and desktops?
Well, Gartner has forecast it will take the lead in its domestic market – the world’s biggest for smartphones – as early as this year, but the US would seem harder to crack.
“The only way Lenovo would have a way to even have a chance would be to have a key carrier support it by lining up one or more of their products in the portfolio. Even this way, I believe consumers will not necessarily see the brand as sexy,” Gartner research VP Carolina Milanesi told me.
“Lenovo’s position in the corporate PC market might give them an opportunity in the prosumer segment especially if they brought to market an Android based device with an enterprise class security and manageability feature set. Bottom line: it’s a tough job and Lenovo would be better off capturing more of the tablet market first so that they could get one step closer to consumers.”
Canalys research director Nicole Peng was not much more optimistic of its chances in the near term, telling me China sales would continue to make up the majority of its global volume.
“The competition landscape in the US smart phone market is far more challenging for new comers, with Apple and Samsung dominating over 70 per cent share,” she added. “However to start selling smart phone in the US, more importantly to gain carrier support is strategically important for Lenovo’s overall PC+ strategy globally.”
All reasonable comments and I think they’ll be true in the short term, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Lenovo up there in the top three or five US smartphone vendors in a couple of years’ time. ZTE, with all of its problems and negative publicity in the US, has already nabbed third place, according to new stats from ITG Market Research.
With a hefty R&D team and vaulting ambition, Lenovo will be hard to ignore, even if its brand image is not exactly an enticing one for smartphone users Stateside at the moment.