Interview: Intel's Kirk Skaugen tells us about the future of the ultrabook

Hey folks! We decided to turn this into a concise, meaningful report, but we thought... why not give you the full interview too? Enjoy! -Sean

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There aren't many companies that can set a new direction for the entire computer industry. Right now, three come to mind: PC manufacturers march to the beat of Microsoft's Windows drum, and they follow Apple's design. The third is Intel, whose ever more powerful silicon, aggressive marketing, and forward thinking directly influence future computers.

At CES 2013, we spoke to the man in charge of Intel's strategy for the computers that you're likely to buy in years to come: Kirk Skaugen, corporate vice president and general manager of Intel's consumer PC division.

In the wake of the Windows 8 launch and an explosion of new form factors, we asked him to tell us what the future of the laptop will be like.

So you've got some interesting announcements around ultrabooks and convertible laptops at CES this year. Now you require touchscreens and wireless display. You've also got a new 7-watt Ivy Bridge processor, and the fourth-generation Haswell processors are coming up. So what's this all about?

We've made a lot of progress since our CEO Paul Otellini took the stage at CES last year. Then, we had Jeff Clark up talking about the world's first third-generation Core, Ivy Bridge, and now we're nearly at 140 ultrabooks in the marketplace and driving to about 40 of those with touch. We've put in some capacity agreements that are enabling us to very rapidly bring touch to the ultrabook. So as we go into the fourth-generation Core, Haswell, we're going to require touch as part of that specification, in addition to Intel Wireless Display (or WiDi) which enables you to take content like pictures of movies from your ultrabook and beam them onto TVs. We expect millions and millions of incremental devices out there to support this WiDi technology. We've got about 30 million of those devices out there right now.

About 30 million devices supporting WiDi?

From a TV perspective.

So WiDi is a technology that has been around for a while, as has touch. Why do they make sense now? Why are we ready to make those a requirement for the ultrabook?

Well, I think the pricepoints of touch... We've been driving things to get the cost points down and when ultrabooks started we were $999 or above. "Touch is testing off the chart."What I'm announcing here at CES is that we think that even though you have $599 pricepoints now in volume, we'll have $599 with touch by the end of this year. Second, the user experience. What's amazing to me is that Intel does 220,000 end-user surveys a year and touch is testing off the chart. Whether it's in a clamshell, whether it's in an all-in-one desktop, or whether it's in a convertible or detachable, when people have a choice of using touch, almost 80 percent of the time they pick that versus a traditional mouse, keyboard or touchpad.

Is that with Windows 8 specifically that's testing off the charts, or is that touch, period, across devices?

We did all of our testing with Windows 8, and with consumers that have had virtually no touch experience. I think some of them have used a tablet before... but they're finding it relatively intuitive. There's a learning process, obviously, that everybody is going to go through with Windows 8, but once they get through that, the touch experience has been fantastic. This has been one of the highest rated features we've ever seen, so we want to really drive it aggressively in 2013.

Do you have any perspective as to whether they want touch, or is it something to do with Windows 8 requires touch to work well? Do they feel they need touch to control it?

Well, I think it needs to be intuitive, and I think people are growing up with phones with touch, so you go look at retail and people are out touching the screens already. Windows 8 obviously being designed around touch makes it a natural time for us to do this, Intel and Microsoft are very well-aligned in that regard.

There are actually already $599 laptops with touch in the market. How low is the incremental cost of touch at this point?

I think it varies by vendor. We've put out capacity agreements that we've been public about with Wintek, Hannstouch and Cando to make sure that the capacity will be there when this takes off, and we think it will in a big way through spring, back-to-school, and into Holiday 2013. We're seeing price point being driven down by natural competition in the marketplace between those vendors.

So the incremental price is going down, you've got the agreements in place and all that. As far as WiDi goes, that technology has also been in the market for a long time but hasn't really gotten much adoption. Do you think this is going to drive it everywhere, or are you still going to need to pick up a niche WiDi receiver device to get your laptop and television to play nicely?

I think it will over time, not just on the TVs, but on projection as well, where you need more security in a business environment. One of the announcements that we made yesterday is that some of our phone devices now also include WiDi, so you can take full high definition videos and beam them off your phone. So we think that the ubiquity we're going to achieve with WiDi will drive a lot of the consumer electronics companies to start integrating even though we have a lot of the peripherals around the TV, and there'll be some interesting announcements across the wireless industry that will beef that up as well.

Are we going to see any particular advancements for WiDi itself?

I think what we're always working on is latency; high end gamers want instantenous movement, so that when you do something on your laptop you see it right away.

What kind of latency do you achieve right now?

It's negligible, we talk about microseconds with this type of thing and we're going to make it better and better over time.

So these additional requirements for the ultrabook, do you have any sense whether manufacturers are happy to play along with with new ultrabook designs? Will some manufacturers shy away from the ultrabook brand or put out fewer ultrabooks because they don't want to incur those additional incremental costs?

So, driving our fourth-gen ultrabooks to include touch is really been part of industry pull as much as it's a push from Intel. The retailers want higher-end ultrabooks, and convertibles and detachables will need touch because they convert to almost a tablet form factor. But they want a consistency. With the OEMs, things stall when they're second-guessing touch, non-touch, "do I have to do both," so this provides them some clarity and some consistency in the higher end.

This year the entire world went thin: when we went from 35 to 17 watts, our volume from 2011 to 2012 was up about five times for our 17 watt products. Some of that was ultrabooks, some of it was things that weren't branded ultrabook — that cut some corners on responsiveness or something. I think this year the ultrabooks will have these premium features, and we'll see touch down to $599. I expect to see convertables and detachables down in that space as well.

is there anything else that's being added to the ultrabook requirements that's going to further raise the bar for the computer? Anything having to do with battery life, perhaps?

I think one of the of the things we can talk about quickly is that we are trying to make it the world's most secure PC.

Ok.

We're protecting people's identity online with some technology that Intel's brought to market. We're going to require anti-malware to be installed on the deivce as well as anti-theft capability. With anti-theft we have the ability to lock the PC: you can go to a website, lock the PC in hardware so that nobody can get access to your precious files and data, and you can actually locate it.

So that's something you've shown before. Is that a requirement for ultrabooks going forward?

Yes it is. The other thing we're doing with 4th-gen Core is that we'll have always-on, always-connected capabilities. "Even on the world's tablets [...] you have to wait for your email."

With Windows 8 we'll be supporting Connected Standby as well as something called Intel Smart Connect. The basic concept between these two capabilities is that even when you have your ultrabook lid closed, it's going to be keeping all of your Facebook and your Twitter feeds concurrent. With that solid state disk capability you'll basically get nearly instant access a couple of seconds from the time you open your lid, full access to your data.

That's going to be not just for things like updates, that will be for applications running, for email?

As a user you'll be able to configure which applications use it. The app providers will have to write to that, but I think this is a first ever: even on the world's fastest tablets today, you power it on and you have to wait for your email, wait for Facebook to update. This will give you instanteous access.

Can you tell me about battery life? For years manufacturers have promised all-day battery life, they've told us that they have all-day battery life. We've tested, and trust me, nobody has all-day battery life in a ultrabook form factor that's powerful enough to do the tasks that people are looking for. Is that going to change with 4th generation Core? Is that something you're driving towards in another way?

The beauty of our 22nm Tri-Gate transistor is that it's very power efficient. That's part of why we're able to announce at CES that we're bringing 3rd-generation Core down to 7 watts versus the 10 watts we promised. On 4th-gen Core, we are going to have the largest battery increase generation on generation in Intel's history. So that will deliver the ability to leave your power brick at home, truly, once and for all.

So, you really mean it this time?

We really mean it this time. There'll be some details in the specification in terms of what that means across a range of workloads.

Can you tell me if there's any numbers that you're targeting there? Battery life for a particular use case, say HD video?

No... what we're doing now with detachable form factors, we can put a battery behind a screen, but when the keyboard is attached, you can get a lot of flexibility by adding different sizes of battery in the keyboard section. It's going to be a tradeoff with the OEMs about how much weight they want to add below the keyboard and the weight a device will have with the full notebook experience versus the weight that they want to have when you're in a tablet mode. What Acer showed the other day is an 800 gram, 10mm, 3rd-generation Core product. I showed [the North Cape reference design] which has a little more beef to the battery: 10 hours as a tablet and then 13 hours of battery life when you add the battery underneath the keyboard.

Do you have any manufacturer guidelines for that balance between weight and battery life, so they get something that they can easily lift up and tote around, but also have enough battery life to get through the day?

There is flexibility in innovation for our OEMs there. A lot of the material choices that we're making — and that was part of the original ultrabook fund — is working on different materials and even working on the placement of the different components within the device, because getting the weight down has a lot of to with the torsion of the system when you're holidng it by the corner of your hand. So we're helping not only with the material choice, but also with the placement to make it more rigid and thinner which therefore makes it lighter.

Can you give me any particular example of a choice that really made a difference?

With the Acer product that they announced coming later in the spring, they're going to take something and make it 20 percent thinner and lighter than their exsiting 17 watt Ivy Bridge model by using the new 7 watt product. Ten millimeters and 800 grams.

Just by reducing the amount of cooling, or is it in the construction of the chassis?

You'll have to ask Acer specifically, but we're seeing more advanced plastics, people using magnesium, carbon fiber, stamped aluminum, machined aluminum. So I think when you look across the 140 ultrabooks, you'll see something for just about everybody and that's the beauty of a horizontal ecosystem. With Intel, our users have a lot of choice, choice in color, choice in form factor, and I think it's going to be a very itneresting year for these convertables and detachables because if you look at the choice —and we've done surveys across the world from China to the US to Germany — some people just love the detachable, being able to detach the screen and have that low weight, some people love the flips, like the Lenovo Yoga or the swivel or slider, and it's a real interesting thing country to country how the mechanical choices differ.

With Windows 8 it feels like there's bit of a disconnect between the distance from which you view the screen, and the resolution. With a large screen at low resolution, you get the nice big icons that you can view at a distance and you can still interact with them because they're large, but they look terrible in tablet mode. With high res, on a tiny screen, they're so much smaller that it's difficult to use in laptop mode. You have to bring it up to your face to use it properly at 1080p and 11 or 12 inches.

Do you have any guidelines on screen resolution, and do you see anything coming up that's going to help bridge that divide?

We're recommending full HD displays, and you're already seeing that more and more in the marketplace.

So how do you deal with it on a small ultrabook with a 1080p screen?

What we're trying to do with the software community... when you're in a traditional clamshell form factor you probably have access to a mouse and keyboard, very fine grained control over the screen, and when you're in a tablet mode you're going to use a finger or have a stylus. We're making the software more intelligent so that it knows which mode it's in, so that when you move into tablet mode you get bigger icons that act like nice buttons for the touchscreen. Whereas if you're editing and you want to go to the creation side, clamshell mode, you might get much smaller buttons. The software is going to get more intelligent as this new category grows to know when it's in clamshell verus when it's in consumption modes.

Last question: What are these devices going to look like going into 2014 and 2015? Are any particular form factors going to become dominant, for instance? There are detachables, ones that spin, twist, flip backwards, and so on. What is the laptop of the future going to look like?

We've seen more mechanical innovation in the last year than we've seen in the last decade. I honestly believe that the amount of convertible and detachable innovation is amazing, and it's great to see the reinvogoration of that. I think that what we see coming in PCs is perceptual computing, adding human senses to the PC. If you think about it, we've been using a keyboard and a mouse for decades, interfacing with these computers and we're going to be adding better eyes to them with better cameras, better ears to them with dual array microphones, and really starting to use gesture control. We're starting with our SDK that we launched at our developer forum four months ago, and now we've had thousands and thousands of developers download this kit. What is happening now is we'll have a camera from Creative and other retailers this year which will get consumers the first taste of what this is about.

Ultimately we want to get this integrated in notebooks and all-in-ones, and give you the ability to basically use your hands and have the computer recognize all ten fingers. This isn't just a nub or moving pages side to side but really getting fine grained articulation, and if you start thinking of what that means for gaming and that kind of thing, it's really exciting.

When can we see that in commercial products?

If you look across the perceptual computing paradigm, with voice we've said we'll deliver nine languages in 27 countries later this year. We are already in production with our relationship with Sensible Vision and we're rolling that out, so that you can get seven facial points and have a secure facial recognition system. Some of the gesture stuff we have with the peripheral camera will be available for developers later this year.