Chip maker Intel Corp. broke its partnership with Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Nicholas Negroponte’s non-profit One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project in January, a mere six months after forging it. On his second visit to India, Justin Rattner, Intel’s chief technology officer, spoke to Mint on what caused the split, the way forward, what Intel is doing to bring down further, the power consumed by high-end processors and the future of computing technology. Edited excerpts:
You recently backed out of the OLPC project. What were the issues there? Was the split because your Classmate PC and OLPC were competing with each other?
We didn’t feel that way, but apparently Mr Negroponte and his folks viewed it as being in conflict. It was not our understanding that OLPC was supposed to be a single design. It’s so early in the life of such a design, and we thought it is actually useful for there to be different attempts to figure out what people really need. But they (OLPC) were wedded to this idea that there would be just one architecture and one software base. Our concept was that rather than start from scratch to build the software, we wanted to leverage much of the existing software, and hit the price point, that various countries were looking at for that product to compete. Since we couldn’t come to agreement about the coexistence of the product, we thought it would be better for us to step out of it. We are not hostile, just that our interests went in different directions.
What about the Classmate PC and OLPC competing with each other in the developing countries?
One of the issues with OLPC was that we had orders worth thousands of units (for Classmate PCs) from different countries we did not want to fail to keep. We were being asked to say that we are not going to sell the Classmate and we need to buy this other thing (OLPC). We did not want to withdraw the product. We thought that having the alternatives of buying either of the two was a good thing.
Tech drive: Intel Corp.’s chief technology officer Justin Rattner.
Do you feel that the non-profit or the subsidy model works better to take technology to the masses or do you feel that it is better to commercialize it to be able to sustain it?
I think the sustainability of the original OLPC model should be scrutinized. We think a more traditional, economic model is capable of delivering that technology to the parts of the world that really need it. Increasingly, the cost of the hardware is the smallest cost. The real cost is in sustaining it for the long term and that’s where commercial ventures are more likely to sustain longer. There is a limit to what a non-profit framework can do in that sense.
On the one hand, you create high-end technology for large enterprises, and on the other, you do something as basic as the Classmate PC. How does Intel strike a balance between the two?
The nature of our business is changing. We all recognize that much of the company’s future growth is going to take place with products for markets that we haven’t served in the past. For the first time this year, at the Consumer Electronics Show at Las Vegas, we talked about us taking our architecture down into very low power systems. We are focusing on this new class of devices we call mobile Internet devices with an entirely new form factor and class of system at a price point that historically we have not been able to get to.
What stage are these devices at?
The system will be in the global market before the middle of this year. We created a whole new generation of low power Intel architecture technology to make these products feasible.They will have simple interfaces, touch screens, ease of use and user friendly features and, hopefully they won’t be quite as cantankerous as the PC can be. They will be priced from a few hundred dollars to $1,000 (Rs39,600). There are some Indian companies who are also interested in the technology.
What’s the future of energy-efficient technology from Intel?
On the server side, the key to driving that is to increase the core count. The more we can integrate on a single chip, the more energy it will save. Improving the energy efficiency of individual cores is another. Packaging techniques that bring all other components closer together saves energy, even though it packs in more heat in a smaller space.
One of the other things we are looking at are thermal solutions for highly dense electronics packaging where we bring the CPU and the memory very close together. That saves the power they would otherwise spend signalling between themselves. Though all the research programmes are worldwide in nature in terms of the effort being shared but the majority of the effort on this one is really in India.
Tell us about the mobile processor business.
About three years ago, we decided we wanted to take the Intel architecture down in power considerably but we couldn’t get much below five watts of power. Phones are at hundreds of milliwatts. That’s why we embarked upon the slow power Intel architecture effort. That’s taken us to the below one-watt range, which will enable the mobile Internet devices, but we have every intent to continue to reduce the power further and at least get down to levels that would satisfy smartphones like Blackberry. We see that happening in the next two-three years. One of the major growth opportunities is in mobile devices and phones and we want to participate in those markets.
What excites you about the future of technology?
I am excited about a revolution in digital multiradio that’s coming. We are going to change the way people think about radios and the way radios are built. That will happen in the next three-five years. We tend to think the revolution in photography is done. In fact, the revolution is just getting under way. All we have done so far is replace film with bits. The cameras of the future will not simply capture an image but will capture the entire light field and things like focus and depth of field will be computed on the fly. The Web as we know it today is still largely a two dimensional experience. We think in the next three-five years, it will become a three-dimensional experience that will have dramatic implications as people will spend more time in this 3D world. These will be extremely immersive and personally engaging experiences.