Intel's show signals market shift from PC to mobile devices

Part of IDF was upstaged by Apple's iPhone 5 launch, but Intel stuck to the message that it remains relevant

This year's Intel Developer Forum was upstaged by Apple's iPhone 5 launch event, which to some show attendees felt like a reprise of last year, when IDF had to compete with Microsoft's Build conference.

Apple's event dominated the second day of IDF, with many attendees and press talking about the merits and drawbacks of the iconic smartphone rather than news from Intel. The company's jovial software chief, Renee James, joked about being the "opening act" for Apple in her speech soon before the iPhone event started.

To some analysts and attendees, the clash between events this year was indicative of the industry shift from PCs, which is dominated by Intel, to mobile devices such as smartphones, where Intel is still trying to make its presence felt. Sales of PCs are fading as users turn to smartphones and tablets as alternatives.

Attendance at IDF this year was up slightly to 4,100 compared to 4,000 last year, according to an Intel spokeswoman, with those at the forum hearing about the new Haswell chip, the future of ultrabooks, and other emerging server, storage and networking technologies. Some found the conference useful as it offered sales leads and a chance to network.

Intel will remain relevant, especially with Microsoft's Windows 8 OS coming up, but this year it's at a crossroads with the market shifting and PC sales declining, said David Kanter, who runs the technology consulting firm Real World Technologies.

"This IDF was unique because you have an opportunity to contrast next door the iPhone 5 launch. In some ways that embodies the shift in the industry," Kanter said. "We have these new classes of devices emerging and there is some financial tension there."

But some attendees were disappointed with IDF.

"It's not been the best IDF. We've been coming to these events for many, many years. Seems like more Intel, less customers," said Stephen Gentile, senior vice president for strategy and business development at Insyde Software, which offers PC, server and tablet firmware and software development tools.

However, Insyde is a key partner for Intel, so the company decided to attend. The company has yet to decide whether it will attend again next year.

There was not much foot traffic at a booth for storage company Virident, which was staffed by inside sales manager Constantine Tikhoniouk. But he found there were other reasons to attend IDF.

"It's more of a forward-thinking conference than going after existing technologies. From that perspective it is very useful," Tikhoniouk said.

The show was surprisingly light on smartphones and tablets, with the focus squarely on ultrabooks, an emerging category of thin-and-light PCs with tablet features. Intel talked about new hybrid ultrabook models in which screens can be detached to become tablets, and new forms of touch, gesture and voice interaction with ultrabooks. Intel's message was clear -- ultrabooks are multifaceted devices that can be powerful laptops, but also tablets for those who desire mobility.

Intel also shed light on its upcoming Haswell chips, which will double performance while cutting power consumption to improve battery life on ultrabooks. Company executives in interviews also said they weren't happy with "good enough computing," possibly aiming at ARM, whose processors go into most tablets and smartphones. Intel offers more performance but lags ARM on power consumption, and the company hopes to catch up with its rival via advances in its manufacturing process.

Tablets and phones are becoming more powerful, but Intel has shown it has the capability to reduce power consumption on chips through Haswell. Intel is aware the industry is shifting and will move with it, Kanter said.

"Naturally, Intel would like that to shift back as they come out with more mobile devices and get into the cellphone space and tablets in a more serious way," Kanter said.

The progress on Haswell could reflect on Intel smartphone and tablet chips going into the future, said Jack Gold, principal analyst at J. Gold Associates.

"I wouldn't rule out mobiles. In fact, I estimate Intel will have a 10 percent market share in smartphones within two to three years, given its push towards lower power and the porting of Android to its chips," Gold said.

Intel has the advantage in process technology that should keep it highly competitive in the mobile space, Gold said.

But Intel's sheer dominance of the PC market continues to create business opportunities for On Semiconductor, which supplies power components to chip and board makers. The company has to advance and spread awareness about its technology as Intel makes chips smaller and more power efficient, and also needs to find new opportunities and contacts, said Mikhail Guz, senior director of low-voltage MOSFET BU at On Semiconductor.

"I think [IDF] may be a little lighter on traffic, I don't know if it's a sign of the times," Guz said. "But for the composition of attendees, it's relevant."

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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