Ajay Bhatt, Intel’s chief client platform architect, is best known for being a co-creator of the USB (Universal Serial Bus) device and more recently for his role in the chip maker’s advertising campaign. A television advertisment, which had an actor portray Ajay Bhatt as an Intel rockstar, attained cult status last year. Bhatt was in India recently to speak at a couple of engineering colleges and then to do some photography in the backwaters of Kerala. He spoke to Mint about the various innovations he’s been associated with, his passion for photography and how he’s glad he’s making engineers ‘look cool’. Edited excerpts:
Were you taken aback at the success of the Ajay Bhatt advertisement?
I was completely shocked at the response. Initially I wasn’t very enthusiastic about it. I didn’t want to be shown somehow as the only person responsible for the USB. In fact, initially it was supposed to show a bunch of Intel people made to look like a rock band. There were many concepts. But then in the end they made changes to the plan. They showed me the video before it (was) aired. I showed it to my wife and she didn’t like it at all.
Thinking change: One of Bhatt’s pet projects now is to make computers use power smartly—consume more energy when there is heavy load and less at other times.
Eventually I decided to go with what our marketing people wanted. It’s been a huge hit. I am just overwhelmed by the response. Intel not only has some good technical people. We also have some good creative and marketing people.
And now what does your family think?
The best thing has been that my daughter now thinks I am cool. Before she thought I was geeky and a nerd. She thought I was always serious. But after the video came out she made a Facebook fan page and people joined it and talk about it.
I think that has been the best outcome of the whole thing.
Also, traditionally movie stars and sports stars have been given celebrity status. This commercial gave engineers visibility. We don’t get a lot of visibility. It helped make engineers cool too.
Looking back, did you have any idea how important an innovation the USB would be?
Not really. When we first started thinking about the USB in 1994 it was thought of as a way of making computers easier for people to use. I began working with micro-computers first and struggled with how long it took to connect different hardware together. Every time you had to connect a device you had to open the box, attach things together, and then close the box.
We began to wonder how we could move this operation to the outside of the box. How could we help people actually use computers?
You must remember that at the time the computer business was struggling. There were very high rates of return. People were buying computers, taking it home and then getting frustrated. The USB developed out of our idea to make connecting devices easier.
Who do you mean when you say “we”?
Oh, by the time USB really took off there were at least 50 people working on it. People sometimes think, because of the commercial, that one or two people created the USB. It wasn’t a one or two person operation. We had a lot of people at Intel working on the device.
Besides the USB what are some of the other devices you’ve worked on at Intel? When you look at a computer do you see a lot of devices with your signature on it?
The USB has been the most popular device I’ve worked on. But that’s because it was also the one that consumers used the most. But inside the box I’ve been involved with devices that are maybe even more important than the USB. Like the PCI Express, which helps connect devices and chips to the motherboard, the Accelerated Graphics Port, that made 3D graphics possible, and power management solutions that help to keep computers energy efficient.
Over the years I’ve worked on a lot of things inside the computer. And I continue to develop some of these ideas and think up new ones. There are always problems to solve and ways of making computing easier for users.
Give us an idea of some of these innovations you are working on.
I have people looking at how to make devices talk to each other better. Like your phone and your laptop. Or a digital camera and a Wi-Fi network. Imagine if you could just place your camera next to your laptop and then just transfer images with a gesture. Flick it from one device to another.
Mobile technology is another area I am interested in. Power management and more power efficient computers is a strong area of study.
We had always looked at ways of making computers work as efficiently as possible. As this often meant using a lot of power... but now this needs a rethink. We are looking at how to make computers use power smartly. Suck more power when there is heavy load on the processor and less otherwise.
Also nowadays you have a lot of computers and laptops that are very thin. There are batteries that are small enough to fit in these small devices. But what about thermals? Handling the heat that is generated inside? This is also a problem we are studying.
You recently announced USB 3.0. How is this an improvement?
You can transfer data ten times as quickly with this new version. Which means you can transfer movies and rich media in seconds from one device to another.
But how do you see this being relevant at a time when people are talking about keeping all their data in the cloud?
A lot of people think that we are moving towards a future when you will have one device, like an iPhone in your pocket that will just access everything on the cloud. I am, to be honest, not so sure this will happen. You will still need different devices for different purposes. And these devices will need to connect to each other seamlessly. So technologies like USB will continue to be relevant. For example take his camera. (Points to the cameraman .) Each picture is going to be several megabytes in size. Right now it takes forever to transfer photos from his or my camera to my laptop. You need better interfaces to speed that up. Like USB 3.0.
Do you have a lot of gadgets lying around at home?
I have a really comprehensive photography kit with me that I carry around often while travelling. And I sometimes carry test devices home from the office to try them out over the weekend. Recently we unveiled a device called Wi-Di at CES in Las Vegas and it won an award. Wi-Di lets you wirelessly display the picture you are seeing on a laptop or your computer to your TV.
So I took Wi-Di home and saw a movie with Shah Rukh Khan using the device. Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi. That was the movie.
Did you pick up photography as a way to test out technology?
It does help me understand the trouble people have with devices and transferring files. But I picked up photography because of a profile a magazine did of me a few years ago. They were profiling various people from the technology industry and all of the other guys seemed to have hobbies except me. One flew helicopters and the other was a master chef. I had never done anything except open up computers.
So I asked the photographer who came to shoot me to show me his camera. I tried it out for a bit. The next day I went and bought myself a full set of lenses and a camera. I’ve been shooting since then. In fact, I am going to Kerala in a few days’ time to do some shooting. I have my complete photography set with me.
And finally, have you ever had a chance to meet Sunil Narkar who played you in the commercial?
After the video became popular, he Googled me on the internet and then called me one day at home. I spoke to him and he invited me over to dinner at his place when I am in Los Angeles next. Really nice guy.
He told me that the video has helped his career tremendously. I believe he is a doing a pilot for a TV show now.