WHAT COMING ADVANCES IN COMPUTING TECHNOLOGY WILL SHAPE THE WAY APPLICATIONS ARE DEVELOPED IN THE FUTURE?
LANs of the 1980s forced applications to become network-aware. In the 1990s, that awareness spread to the Internet. And in the first decade of this century, increasingly powerful smartphones spawned a new generation of apps for the small screen. Before long, smartphone apps began taking advantage of the always-on device, the always-connected network, the phone’s location awareness, and other characteristics unique to the cell-phone platform.
By the middle of the decade, web sites such as Facebook*, YouTube*, and the iTunes* Store were appealing to a different kind of new generation—those born after the invention of the Internet and the World Wide Web. This crop of highly tech-savvy users has grown up accustomed to always-on, always-connected devices and real-time communication with their peers. Their communication devices have, in essence, become extensions of their personalities. Meanwhile, in the arena of game consoles, Microsoft and Nintendo were pushing the limits of the human-machine interface. With the use of accelerometers and optical sensors, these companies got gamers off the couch, and Microsoft’s Kinect* even took away their hand controllers.
The Ultrabook™ combines performance of high-end laptops with the technologies and sensors typically available on mobile platforms like tablets and smartphones.” —TOM DECKOWSKI, DEVELOPER MARKETING MANAGER, INTEL
Today at Intel, engineers are working on what the company believes is the next big thing in mobile computing. Building on the networking and sensory inputs that have come before, the company and its partners are elevating devices to a new level of self-awareness, enabling users to be at their most powerful, most productive, and most creative.
A New Way to Experience the Visual World
They call it “perceptual computing,” and to hear it described might conjure images of Minority Report, the 2002 sci-fi thriller in which cops from 2054 use ultra-high-tech computers to fight crime. “Imagine your hand in the shape of a gun and your finger is actually pulling the trigger,” said David Flanagan, managing director of the Mobility Group at Intel Capital, in an interview with Intel® Visual Adrenaline magazine. He was describing what might be the controlling action of a first-person shooter. “Touch [sensitivity] is wonderful, and it has expanded the computing environment,” he continued, “but people will want to do a host of things, and touching with your finger isn’t the optimal way to engage your device and get full utility out of it.” In essence, Intel envisions devices that will liberate people to be their “UltraYou.”
With perceptual computing, Intel envisions a realm of computing that is natural, intuitive, and compelling. “We’re looking at technology that will enable that,” said Flanagan, adding that beyond gaming, perceptual computing will have numerous applications in the fields of social interaction, online shopping, content creation, education, healthcare, and much more.
For those who remember HTML 1.0, instant access to high-speed Internet also has become a necessity, though perhaps for slightly different reasons. User productivity today is tied to the Web—to cloud-based apps for e-mail, word processing, number crunching, and collaboration. Users and developers have discovered that “mobile markup languages” such as WML cannot deliver much of a user experience to the diverse set of mobile devices.
The unstoppable force that is today’s mobile workforce is always on and ready to go, and demands device-specific apps that dissolve boundaries, expand horizons, and allow life without compromise. In just a few short years, web-based news sites and social networks have given rise to real-time communications capabilities never before seen. And people have gotten used to—perhaps even take for granted—the instantaneous delivery of information, goods, and services that the Internet facilitates.
What Users Want
What type of device is tomorrow’s thought worker likely to purchase? Intel was determined to find out. In 2009, the company embarked on a research project intended to reveal the characteristics people most wanted from a new computer, were they to buy one. But instead of focusing on transistors per- square-inch and gigahertz-per-nanometer, Intel Director of Insights and Market Research, David Ginsberg, decided to conduct “an emotional inquiry” using techniques from neuroscience, and cognitive and behavioral psychology.
“People want technology to fade away into the background so they can focus on the task at hand,” Ginsberg told Forbes magazine in an October 2011 online story. “That still implies speed but it’s about how people experience speed,” he said. His research had revealed that people think of a positive computing experience in much the same way as any other positive experience: Everything just works.
Part of what Intel found was that when today’s mobile achievers are “in the groove,” a smooth user experience is paramount, and their computing platform must be as connected and capable as their smartphone. It can never be out of sync with the social scene and must never keep them waiting. For anything. Ever.
And when it comes to security, just make it automatic, keep the system free from viruses, and keep files and identities safe.
In the end, researchers found that success in the brave new world of mobile computing required devices that delivered high availability and connectivity, application responsiveness, seamless workflow, an intuitive user interface, improved security, and stylish good looks.
Armed with the priorities of next-generation road warriors, Intel engineers developed a blueprint for systems that would operate more like smartphones— wake up in a flash, combine responsiveness with performance, offer seamless and compelling experience and be sleek and less than an inch thick.
With this new specification in mind, Intel unleashed the US D 300 million Intel Capital Ultrabook Fund (see the sidebar Intel Capital Ultrabook Fund: Developers Wanted in this article) to spread the word of its plan, generate user interest, and attract hardware partners. Just six short months later, Intel announced that a handful of companies were ready to launch Ultrabook devices and that many more had signed on. The Ultrabook device, Intel’s vision of a device that provides the best of everything users want, was a reality.
Intel Capital Ultrabook Fund: Developers Wanted
Intel Capital is looking for developers to help it spend US D 300 million. When the next generation of Ultrabook™ devices begins hitting store shelves later this year, Intel said we’ll be seeing mobile computers with capabilities beyond the traditional clamshell, and notebook and tablet convertibles.
“We want to drive breakthrough experiences around the user interface in terms of gesture control, voice control, and HD audio and video into the platform,” said David Flanagan, managing director of the Mobility Group at Intel Capital. “Many of these [capabilities] are software enabled, and developers will have a new set of inputs to work with to boost their ability to build immersive experiences,” he said.
“The new ingredient technologies you don’t see in mobile platforms today like touch sensors, gyros, accelerometers, and altimeters, enhance the experience and allow users to extract maximum utility from a device,” he said. “These things need to be put into devices that consumers are demanding.”
In short, Flanagan says that Intel is seeking developers to “deliver the next set of ‘wow factor’ applications to showcase what consumers don’t have today.” There will be lots of new form factors. “Clamshell devices, sure, but a myriad of hybrids, sliders, and [other] convertibles that operate as a notebook or tablet,” he said. They’ll also feature instant-on, always-on capabilities borrowed from smartphones. “Enabling these new, nonresident technologies will be an area of focus for the fund as well.”
Intel finds and engages developers in three primary ways, said Flanagan, the first of which is through its 100,000 employees worldwide. “This allows us to cast a wide net to identify these opportunities,” he said. “Most of our people understand our longer-term strategies and help us find these small emerging companies while they’re in the development stage.”
We’re looking for the next set of app developers who are forward-moving and forward-thinking.
The company also uses its venture capital (VC) network, Intel Capital, which according to Flanagan is the industry’s longest surviving corporate venture group. “Since 1991, we’ve built a well-established set of traditional VC relationships.”
Then there’s indirect engagement, under which developers and solution providers are invited to submit proposals through the Intel Capital Web site (www.intelcapital.com). Flanagan described the general categories into which Intel Capital places such proposals.
The first is gap filling, which identifies a piece of hardware or software critical to the platform and engages a third party to develop or build it. The second Flanagan described as “eyes and ears” investments, which today includes its vision of perceptual computing, and generally includes any long-term capability or technology that’s too far out to attract traditional VC funding.
“It’s about identifying the next gen of software capabilities that will deliver experiences we have yet to think of today but know will materialize in the future,” he said, adding, “We bet ahead of the VC community in belief of new technologies.” He used Intel’s push into perceptual computing as an example, describing it as a natural progression in the history of human-machine interaction.
“[We’ve] gone from mouse and keyboard to touch,” he said. “Touch has expanded the environment tremendously, [but] we believe the next evolution is a touchless way of interacting with the device. There’s a bunch of software and hardware that you need to integrate, and we’re relying on third-party companies to help us develop a lot of this.”
“There are a host of other things people will want to do with the devices in the near future,” said Flanagan. The developer opportunities are many. “We’re looking for the next set of app developers who are forward-moving and forward-thinking. I’d like to spend more money in next-gen technologies, and research and development . . . to deliver strong capabilities and usage on the Ultrabook.”
He said it’s important that people want to migrate to the Ultrabook device because it provides more value and is more useful in business and home life than whatever they’re using now. “It’s the innovation element that’s critical.
Ultrabook™ Device Benefits
Built around the 2nd generation Intel® Core™ i3, Core™ i5, and Core™ i7 processors, the platform’s key design elements has inspired a generation of Ultrabook devices that are sleek and lightweight, yet instantly responsive to the user’s every need at a price that’s within reach of many people.
“What Ultrabook offers to the user audience is to make life easier,” said Tom Deckowski, Intel’s developer marketing manager, during an interview with Intel Visual Adrenaline magazine. “It differentiates. It’s unique and different in the marketplace, compared to anything else Intel has done.”
That’s certainly not an exaggeration. Dell and many other companies have designs in the works. And Ultrabook devices are available today in the form of the half-inch-thin Acer Aspire* S, the 11-inch Zenbook* UX21 and 13-inch Zenbook UX31 from Asus, Toshiba’s 2.5-pound Portege* Z830, the HP Folio 13, and the solid aluminum IdeaPad* U300S from Lenovo. From personal experience with the Acer Aspire S, its paper-thin physique and handsome brushed metal exterior only add to its strong application benchmarks, instant on responsiveness, and extremely long battery life. And it lists for a fraction of comparable systems outside the spec.
The Ultrabook device specification describes three major responsiveness technologies, one of which is mandated. With Intel® Rapid Start technology, “you open the system and within seven seconds it’s fully functional,” said Deckowski. “Start-up time also is extremely short. A certain portion of the hard drive is reserved for caching information about the operating system and application state, giving users an “uninterrupted, easy, quick, responsive device that’s highly mobile and makes sense.” Acer’s Ultrabook device dedicates a 20-gigabyte (GB) solid-state drive (SS D) to responsiveness, in addition to its 320-GB spinning drive.
The second performance feature is Intel® Smart Response technology, which is not limited to Ultrabook devices. This feature helps to boost performance by using an SS D or SS D-hybrid as a cache between a system’s hard drive and its memory without the use of an additional drive letter. This is intended mainly to speed up application launch times.
Then there’s Intel® Smart Connect technology, which among its many uses will provide game developers a way to enable players to never really leave the arena.
“When someone finishes playing a game, they don’t necessarily shut it off, they just close the laptop and it goes into hibernate mode,” said Deckowski. At this point, Intel Smart Connect can take over, allowing the application to continue receiving updates in hibernate or sleep mode. “When they re-open that clamshell and [the system] wakes up, all the info in a cloud-based game is available to them right away; they don’t have to wait for it to update.” Deckowski continued, “Users looking for connectivity while sleeping will have to wait until Windows* 8 comes out.”
Deckowski revealed some mouth-watering features that will be available later in the year. “The Ultrabook [spec] combines performance of high-end laptops with the technologies and sensors typically available on mobile platforms like tablets and smartphones,” he said. These sensors include an accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass.
“Developers that were strictly building PC apps will now have a platform that’s more mobile than a typical laptop and have technologies and sensors they previously could not access,” said Deckowski. “The end user can use these and other sensors as inputs into the app right within the game,” he added.
“On the flip side, mobile application developers who were focused on creating apps for small-footprint devices that didn’t take a lot of CPU will now have access to the CPU and graphics performance they never had before, without losing access to the sensors,” said Deckowski. So there’s something new in the Ultrabook device for both x86 and mobile developers alike.
“We believe that driving a new level of accelerated innovation and user features will drive a new level of consumer and enterprise demand for this new computing platform,” Flanagan said. “We’re looking at the next set of apps that will give us that ‘wow factor,’” he said. “If all we do is deliver the equivalent experience you see on a tablet, or thin and light form factors like [Apple’s] MacBook* Air, then I think to some extent we have failed.”
Ultrabook devices will be equipped with those sensors after the release of the 3rd generation Intel® Core™ processor family sometime later in the year. “The 3rd gen Intel Core processor is the platform with the sensors. Some sensors are not supported in Windows 7 but will be [supported] once Windows 8 launches,” said Deckowski.
On the plus side, Deckowski said developers will be able to create and test apps using the Windows 8 beta on 3rd gen Intel Core processor hardware and be confident of a Q4 platform launch. “So if their apps are going to be released in Q4, they can take advantage of the sensor [support] in Windows 8 and be ready to ship by the end of the year.”
Application distribution and installation also will be a bit different from the present. Since most Ultrabook devices will lack an optical drive, installations will consist almost entirely of downloads over WiFi* after purchase from a site such as the Intel AppUpsm center.
Ultrabook Device Security
While no system is totally impervious, Ultrabook devices protect user identity and digital content with Intel® technology baked right into the hardware that goes far beyond simple name and password security.
With Intel® Identity Protection Technology (Intel® IPT), a simple one-factor (name and password) authentication is increased to two-factor with the addition of a one-time, six-digit password unique to the device. When the device visits an Intel IPT-integrated Web site, the user is prompted for the six-digit code, which changes every 30 seconds. “When a portion of a game service lives in a cloud, your user account can potentially be more secure if a developer chooses to use [Intel IPT], but it’s not unique to games,” said Deckowski.
Ultrabook systems will provide users with all the speed, power, and efficiency of the 2nd gen Intel Core i3, Core i5, and Core i7 processors and the 3D graphics of Intel® HD Graphics. And that’s just the first iteration. Combine the planned capabilities borrowed from smartphones and tablets such as touch navigation, motion sensing, and always-on synchronization, with the power and efficiency of the 3rd gen Intel Core processor, and the only thing more amazing than Intel’s technology will be what people will do with it.
About the Author
Edward J. Correia has been a part of the computer industry since 1980, when he began selling (and occasionally hacking) computers from Atari and Commodore. In addition to writing for Rose & Her Minions, Correia currently serves as technical editor at the CRN Test Center, a computer and networking test lab that he helped establish in 1995. During a 10-year hiatus from CRN ’s parent company, United Business Media, Correia was editor of Software Test & Performance magazine and executive editor of SD Times.