About Jean-Louis Gassée

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Posts by Jean-Louis Gassée:

Intel Is Under New Management – And It Shows

 

Intel rode the PC wave with Microsoft and built an seemingly insurmountable lead in the field of “conventional” (PCs and laptops) microprocessors. But, after his predecessor missed the opportunity to supply the CPU chip for Apple’s iPhone, Intel’s new CEO must now find a way to gain relevance in the smartphone world.

In last May’s The Atlantic magazine, Intel’s then-CEO Paul Otellini confessed to a mistake of historic proportions. Apple had given Intel the chance to be part of the smartphone era, to supply the processor for the first iPhone… and Otellini said no [emphasis and light editing mine]:

“The thing you have to remember is that this was before the iPhone was introduced and no one knew what the iPhone would do… At the end of the day, there was a chip that they were interested in that they wanted to pay a certain price for and not a nickel more and that price was below our forecasted cost. I couldn’t see it. It wasn’t one of these things you can make up on volume. And in hindsight, the forecasted cost was wrong and the volume was 100x what anyone thought.”
“…while we like to speak with data around here, so many times in my career I’ve ended up making decisions with my gut, and I should have followed my gut. [...] My gut told me to say yes.”

That Otellini found the inner calm to publicly admit his mistake — in an article that would be published on his last day as CEO, no less — is a testament to his character. More important, Otellini’s admission unburdened his successor, Brian Krzanich, freeing him to steer the company in a new direction.

And Krzanich is doing just that.

First: House cleaning. Back in March 2012, the Wall Street Journal heralded Intel as The New Cable Guy. The idea was to combine an Intel-powered box with content in order to serve up a quality experience not found elsewhere (read Apple, Netflix, Roku, Microsoft…). To head the project, which was eventually dubbed OnCue, Intel hired Erik Huggers, a senior industry executive and former head of BBC Online.

At the All Things D conference in February, Huggers announced that the TV service would be available later this year. The Intel TV chief revealed no details about how the service OnCue would differ from existing competitors, or how much the thing would cost…but he assured us that the content would be impressive (“We are working with the entire industry”), and the device’s capabilities would be comprehensive (“This is not a cherry-pick… this is literally everything”).

Intel seemed to be serious. We found out that more than 1,000 Intel employees in Oregon had been engaged in testing the product/service.

Then Krzanich stepped in, and applied a dose of reality:

Intel continues to look at the business model…. we are not experts in the content industry and we’re being careful.” [AllThingsD: New Intel CEO Says Intel TV Sounds Great in Theory. But …]

Indeed, to those of us who have followed the uneasy dance between Apple and content providers since the first Apple TV shipped in 2007, the Intel project sounded bold, to say the least.

Late September, the project was put on hold and, last week, the news came that OnCue had been cancelled and allegedly offered to Verizon, whose V Cast media distribution feats come to mind…

Even before OnCue’s cancellation was made official, the well-traveled Erik Huggers appeared to show an interest in the Hulu CEO job. (If Mr Huggers happens to be reading this: I’d be more than happy to relieve you of the PowerPoints that you used to pitch the project to Intel’s top brass, not to mention the updates on the tortuous negotiations for content, and the reports from the user testing in Oregon. These slides must make fascinating corpospeak logic.)

Krzanich quickly moved from doubt to certainty. He saw that OnCue would neither make money by itself, nor stimulate sales or margins for its main act, x86 processors. OnCue would never be an Apple TV “black puck”, a supporting character whose only mission is to make the main personal computers (small, medium and large; smartphones, tablets and conventional PCs) more useful and pleasant.

So he put an end to the impossible-to-justify adventure.

That was easy.

Tackling Intel’s failure to gain a significant role in the (no longer) new world of smartphones is a much more complicated matter.

With its x86 processors, Intel worked itself into a more-than-comfortable position as part of the Wintel ecosystem. The dominant position achieved by the Microsoft-Intel duopoly over two decades yielded correspondingly high margins for both.

But smartphones changed the game. ARM processors proved themselves better than x86 at the two tasks that are integral to personal, portable devices: lowering power consumption and customization. The ARM architecture didn’t have to wait for the iPhone and Android handsets to dominate the cell phone business. Just as Windows licensing spawned a large number of PC makers, ARM licensing contributed to the creation of a wide range of processor design and manufacturing companies. The ARM site claims 80 licensees for its newer Cortex family and more than 500 for its older Classic Arm processors. No monopoly means lower margins.

Intel saw the unattractive margins offered by ARM processors and didn’t want to commit the billions of dollars required by a fab (a chip manufacturing plant) for a product that would yield profits that were well below Wall Street expectations.

The prospect of bargain basement margins undoubtedly figured in Otellini’s decision to say no to the iPhone. In 2006, no one could have predicted that it could have been made up in volume, that there would be a billion smartphone sales in 2014. (I’m basing the 1B number for the entire industry on Horace Dediu’s estimate of 250 million iOS devices for 2014.)

Even if the Santa Clara company had had the foresight to accept lower margins in order to ensure their future in the smartphone market, there would still have been the problem of customization.

Intel knows how to design and manufacture processors that used “as is” by PC makers. No customization, no problems.

This isn’t how the ARM world works. Licensees design processors that are customized for their specific device, and they send the design to a manufacturer. Were Intel to enter this world, they would no longer design processors, just manufacture them, an activity with less potential for profit.

This explains why Intel, having an ARM license and making XScale processors, sold the business to Marvell in 2006 – a fateful date when looking back on the Apple discussions.

But is Intel’s new CEO is rethinking the “x86 and only x86″ strategy? Last week, a specialty semiconductor company called Altera announced that Intel would fabricate some if its chips containing a 64-bit ARM processor. The company’s business consists of offering faster development times through “programmable logic” circuits. Instead of a “hard circuit” to be designed, manufactured, tested, debugged, modified and sent back to the manufacturing plant in lengthy and costly cycles, you buy a “soft circuit” from Altera and similar companies (Xilinx comes to mind). This more expensive device can be reprogrammed on the spot to assume a different function, or correct the logic in the previous iteration. Pay more and get functioning hardware sooner, without slow and costly turns through a manufacturing process.

With this in mind, what Intel will someday manufacture for Altera isn’t the 64-bit ARM processor that excited some observers: “Intel Makes 14nm ARM for Altera“. The Stratix 10 circuits Altera contracts to Intel manufacturing are complicated and expensive ($500 and up) FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) devices where the embedded ARM processor plays a supporting, not central, role. This isn’t the $20-or-less price level arena in which Intel has so far declined to compete.

Manufacturing chips for Altera might simply be work-for-hire, a quick buck for Intel, but I doubt it. Altera’s yearly revenue is just shy of $2B; Intel is a $50B company. The newly announced device, just one in Altera’s product lines, will not “move the needle” for Intel — not in 2014 (the ship date isn’t specified), or ever.

Instead, I take this as a signal, a rehearsal.  250M ARM SoCs at $20 each would yield $5B in revenue, 10% of Intel’s current total…

This might be what Krzanich had in mind about when he inked the “small” manufacturing agreement with Altera; perhaps he was weighing the smaller margins of ARM processors against the risk of slowing PC sales.

Graciously freed from the past by his predecessor, it’s hard to see how Intel’s new CEO won’t take the plunge and use the company’s superb manufacturing technology to finally

make ARM processors.

JLG@mondaynoye.com

 

Security Shouldn’t Trump Privacy – But I’m Afraid It Will

 

The NSA and security agencies from other countries are shooting for total surveillance, for complete protection against terrorism and other crimes. This creates the potential for too much knowledge falling one day in the wrong hands.

An NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, takes it upon himself to gather a mountain of secret internal documents that describe our surveillance methods and targets, and shares them with journalist Glenn Greenwald. Since May of this year, Greenwald has provided us with a trickle of Snowden’s revelations… and our elected officials, both here and abroad, treat us to their indignation.

What have we learned? We Spy On Everyone.

We spy on enemies known or suspected. We spy on friends, love interests, heads of state, and ourselves. We spy in a dizzying number of ways, both ingenious and disingenuous.

(Before I continue, a word on the word “we”. I don’t believe it’s honest or emotionally healthy to say “The government spies”. Perhaps we should have been paying more attention, or maybe we should have prodded our solons to do the jobs we elected them for… but let’s not distance ourselves from our national culpability.)
You can read Greenwald’s truly epoch-making series On Security and Liberty in The Guardian and pick your own approbations or invectives. You may experience an uneasy sense of wonder when contemplating the depth and breadth of our methods, from cryptographic and social engineering exploits (doubly the right word), to scooping up metada and address books and using them to construct a security-oriented social graph.

We manipulate technology and take advantage of human foibles; we twist the law and sometimes break it, aided by a secret court without opposing counsel; we outsource our spying by asking our friends to suck petabytes of data from submarine fiber cables, data that’s immediately combed for keywords and then stored in case the we need to “walk back the cat“.

NSA-Merkel-Phone

Sunday’s home page of the German site Die Welt

The reason for this panopticon is simple: Terrorists, drugs, and “dirty” money can slip through the tiniest crack in the wall. We can’t let a single communication evade us. We need to know everything. No job too small, no surveillance too broad.

As history shows, absolute anything leads to terrible consequences. In a New York Review of Books article, James Bamford, the author of noted books on the NSA, quotes Senator Frank Church who, way back in 1975, was already worried about the dangers of absolute surveillance [emphasis mine]:

“That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people and no American would have any privacy left, such [is] the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide. If this government ever became a tyranny, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back, because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know. Such is the capability of this technology…. I don’t want to see this country ever go across the bridge. I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision, so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return.

From everything we’ve learned in recent months, we’ve fallen into the abyss.

We’ve given absolute knowledge to a group of people who want to keep the knowledge to themselves, who seem to think they know best for reasons they can’t (or simply won’t) divulge, and who have deemed themselves above the law. General Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA, contends that “the courts and the policy-makers” should stop the media from exposing our spying activities. (As Mr. Greenwald witheringly observes in the linked-to article, “Maybe [someone] can tell The General about this thing called ‘the first amendment’.”)

Is the situation hopeless? Are we left with nothing but to pray that we don’t elect bad guys who would use surveillance tools to hurt us?

I’m afraid so.

Some believe that technology will solve the problem, that we’ll find ways to hide our communications. We have the solution today! they say: We already have unbreakable cryptography, even without having to wait for quantum improvements. We can hide behind mathematical asymmetry: Computers can easily multiply very large numbers to create a key that encodes a message, but it’s astronomically difficult to reverse the operation.

Is it because of this astronomic difficulty — but not impossibility — that the NSA is “the largest employer of mathematicians in the country“? And is this why “civilian” mathematicians worry about the ethics of those who are working for the Puzzle Palace?

It might not matter. In a total surveillance society, privacy protection via unbreakable cryptography won’t save you from scrutiny or accusations of suspicious secrecy. Your unreadable communication will be detected. In the name of State Security, the authorities will knock on your door and demand the key.

Even the absence of communication is suspect. Such mutism could be a symptom of covert activities. (Remember that Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad was thoroughly unwired: No phones, no internet connection.)

My view is that we need to take another look at what we’re pursuing. Pining for absolute security is delusional, and we know it. We risk our lives every time we step into our cars — or even just walk down the street — but we insist on the freedom to move around. We’re willing to accept a slight infringement on our liberties as we obey the rules of the road, and we trust others will do the same. We’re not troubled by the probability of ending up mangled while driving to work, but the numbers aren’t unknown (and we’re more than happy to let insurance companies make enormous profits by calculating the odds).

Regarding surveillance, we could search for a similar risk/reward balance. We could determine the “amount of terror” we’re willing to accept and then happily surrender just enough of our privacy to ensure our safety. We could accept a well-defined level of surveillance if we thought it were for a good cause (as in keeping us alive).

Unfortunately, this pleasant-sounding theory doesn’t translate into actual numbers, on either side of the equation. We have actuarial tables for health and automotive matters, but none for terrorism; we have no way of evaluating the odds of, say, a repeat of the 9/11 terrorist attack. And how do you dole out measures of privacy? Even if we could calculate the risk and guarantee a minimum of privacy, imagine that you’re the elected official who has to deliver the message:

In return for guaranteed private communication with members of your immediate family (only), we’ll accept an X% risk of a terrorist attack resulting in Y deaths and Z wounded in the next T months.

In the absence of reliable numbers and courageous government executives, we’re left with an all-or-nothing fortress mentality.

Watching the surveillance exposition unfold, I’m reminded of authoritarian regimes that have come and gone (and, in some cases, come back). I can’t help but think that we’ll coat ourselves in the lubricant of social intercourse: hypocrisy. We’ll think one thing, say another, and pretend to ignore that we’re caught in a bad bargain.

JLG@mondaynote.com

 

iPhone 5S surprises

 

I will withhold judgment on the new iPhone until I have a chance to play customer, buy the product (my better half seems to like the 5C while I pine for a 5S), and use it for about two weeks — the time required to go beyond my first and often wrong impressions”.

I wrote those words a little over a month ago. I’ve now played customer for the requisite two weeks — I got an iPhone 5S on October 3rd — and I’m prepared to report.

But first, some context.

iPhone launches always generate controversy, there’s always something to complain about: Antennagate for the iPhone 4, the Siri beta for the 4S, the deserved Maps embarrassment last year – with a clean, dignified Tim Cook apology.

(Whether these fracas translate into lost revenue is another matter).

As I sat in the audience during the introduction of the original iPhone, back in January, 2007, I thought the demo was too good, that Steve was (again) having his way with facts. I feared that when the product shipped a few months later, the undistorted reality would break the spell.

We know now that the iPhone that Steve presented on the stage was unfinished, that he trod a careful path through a demo minefield. But the JesusPhone that Apple shipped — unfinished in many ways (no native apps, no cut-and-paste) — was more than a success: It heralded the Smartphone 2.0 era.

iphone 5s

This year, Tim Cook introduced the riskiest hardware/software combination since the original iPhone. The iPhone 5S wants to be more than just “new and improved”, it attempts to jump off the slope with its combination of two discontinuities: a 64-bit processor and a new 64-bit iOS. Will it work, or will it embarrass itself in a noisome backfire?

First surprise: It works.

Let me explain. I have what attorneys call “personal knowledge” of sausage factories, I’ve been accountable for a couple and a fiduciary for several others. I have first-hand experience with the sights, the aromas, the tumult of the factory floor, so I can’t help but wince when I approach a really new product, I worry in sympathy with its progenitors. The 5S isn’t without its “aromas” (we’ll get to those later), but the phone is sleek and attractive, the house apps are (mostly) solid, and the many new Application Programming Interfaces (API) promise novel applications. Contrary to some opinions, there are fewer warts than anyone could have expected.

Surprise #2, the UI: I had read the scathing critiques of the spartan excesses, and, indeed, I feel the drive for simplicity occasionally goes too far. The buttons on the built-in timer are too thin, too subdued. When I meditate in the dark I can’t distinguish Start from Cancel without my glasses. But I’m generally happy with the simpler look. Windows and views get out of the way quickly and gracefully, text is neatly rendered, the removal of skeuomorphic artifacts is a relief.

The next surprise is the fingerprint sensor a.k.a. Touch ID. Having seen how attempts to incorporate fingerprint recognition into smartphones and laptops have gone nowhere, I had my doubts. Moreover, Apple had acquired AuthenTec, the company that created the fingerprint sensor, a mere 15 months ago. Who could believe that Apple would be able to produce a fingerprint-protected iPhone so quickly?

But it works. It’s not perfect, I sometimes have to try again, or use another finger (I registered three on my right hand and two on my left), but it’s clear that Apple has managed to push Touch ID into the category of “consumer-grade technology”: It works often enough and delivers enough benefit to offset the (small) change in behavior.

A personal favorite surprise is Motion Sensing.

When Apple’s Marketing Supremo Phil Schiller described the M7 motion processor, I didn’t think much of it, I was serving the last days of my two-month sentence wearing the JawBone UP bracelet mentioned in a previous Monday Note. (A friend suggested I affix it to his dog’s collar to see what the data would look like.)

Furthermore, the whole “lifestyle monitoring” business didn’t seem like virgin territory. The Google/Motorola Moto X smartphone introduced last August uses a co-processor that, among other things, monitors your activities, stays awake even when the main processor is asleep, and adjusts the phone accordingly. A similar co-processing arrangement is present in Moto X’s predecessors, the Droid Maxx, Ultra and Mini.

But then I saw a Twitter exchange about Motion Sensing apps about a week after I had activated my iPhone 5S. One thumb touch later, the free Pedometer++ app asked for my permission to use motion data (granted) and immediately told me how many steps I’d taken over the past seven days.

I went to the chauffeured iPhone on my wife’s desk and installed the app. I did the same on friends’ devices. The conclusion was obvious: The M7 processor continuously generates and stores motion data independent of any application. A bit of googling shows that there are quite a few applications that use the motion data that’s obligingly collected by the M7 processor; I downloaded a number of these apps and the step counts are consistent.

(Best in class is the ambitious MotionX 24/7. Philippe Kahn’s company FullPower Technologies licenses MotionX hardware and software to many motion-sensing providers, including Jawbone and, perhaps, Apple. Wearable technologies aren’t just for our wrists…we carry them in our pockets.)

My wife asked if her iPhone would count steps from within her handbag. Ever the obliging husband, I immediately attended to this legitimate query, grabbed her handbag, and stepped out of the house for an experimental stroll. A conservatively dressed couple walked by, gave me a strange look, and didn’t respond to my evening greeting, but, indeed, the steps were counted.

A question arises: Does Apple silently log my movements? No, my iPhone records my locomotion, but the data stays within the device — unless, of course, I let a specific application export them. One must be aware of the permissions.

Other 5S improvements are welcome but not terribly surprising. The camera has been smartly enhanced in several dimensions; search finally works in Mail; and, to please Sen. McCain, apps update themselves automatically.

All of this comes with factory-fresh bugs, of course, a whiff of the sausage-making apparatus. iPhoto crashed on launch the first three or four times I tried it, but has worked without complaint since then.  A black Apple logo on a white background appeared and then quickly disappeared — too brief to be a full reboot, too sparse to be part of an app.

I’ve had to reboot the 5S to recover a dropped cellular connection, and have experienced hard-to-repeat, sporadic WiFi trouble that seems to spontaneously cure itself.(“How did you fix it?” asks my wife when her tech chauffeur gets the sullen device to work again. “I don’t know, I poke the patient everywhere until it responds.”)

From my admittedly geeky perspective, I’m not repelled by these glitches, they didn’t lose my data or prevent me from finishing a task. They’re annoying, but they’re to be expected given the major hardware and software changes. And I expect that the marketplace (as opposed to the kommentariat) will shrug them off and await the bug fixes that will take care of business.

So, yes, overall, the “discontinuous” 5S works.

[I'm also using a pre-release of Mavericks, the upcoming 10.9 version of OS X, on two Macs. There, I wonder if I'm not seeing the opposite of the iPhone 5S: less risk, more bugs. I hope things straighten out for the public release. I'll report if and when warranted.] [I can't resist: The Washington Post's Wonkblog calls the iPhone's third color... Dignified Gold. I wonder: Is it a compliment to Sir Jony's unerring taste? Or a clever, indirect ethnic slur?]

JLG@mondaynote.com