Intel has had a very bad week.
The revelation of the Meltdown and Spectre security flaws put the company at the epicenter of a vulnerability story, then a processor slowdown story, and even a CEO stock malfeasance story. It’s not the lead up to the the main keynote of the Consumer Electronics Show that CEO Brian Krzanich wanted. But it’s the one he got.
So Krzanich did the obvious thing: he kicked off the keynote with some somber words about the bugs and Intel’s planned response. He was careful to describe these bugs as an industry-wide issue requiring an industry-wide response. It was a rhetorical dance that needed to achieve several goals. First, make up for Intel’s original (pardon the pun) chip-on-its-shoulder response to the initial reports. Second, try to ensure that it wasn’t just Intel taking the brunt of the blame for these vulnerabilities.
And most importantly, get the damn subject out of the way so Intel could move on to what it really wanted to do this year at CES: change your mind about what Intel is and what it does.
“If you’ll indulge me,” Krzanich said, “I’d love nothing more than to simply put my phone away and take this evening to truly celebrate innovation with you.”
The keynote that ensued has clearly been in production for many months, based on what we saw in our exclusive backstage look at a rehearsal a couple days early. We had also planned on interviewing Krzanich, but after the Meltdown news broke he declined to participate in our story. Meltdown didn’t stop Intel’s CEO from photobombing our video or posing for a quick selfie with me, but it did stop him from answering questions on camera.
Outside of the immediate problems with Meltdown and Spectre, Intel has long had a very simple, very fundamental problem: you, personally, don’t buy anything it makes. You buy phones made by Apple that may or may not have Intel modems in them, you buy PCs from Microsoft and OEMs that probably have Intel processors, and you use web services from Google that run on servers powered by Intel chips. Intel has been trying to change that story for years now, trying to convince you that you should care about Intel as much as Apple or Google or Microsoft. It’s trying to tell new stories about itself.
One story is about data. Intel likes to say data is “the new oil,” which is supposed to mean that you need constant access to it and that it powers everything. It’s a weird way to talk about it. It’s better than vague “cloud” language, but it has the unfortunate connotation of robber barons and global conflict.
Most of the other stories Intel is trying to tell are all of a piece, one that is much more relevant to consumers than the come-to-nothing tech demos Intel used to put in its CES keynotes. The theme this year is that Intel is able to turn objects in space into data that can offer you new experiences.
One example is something called “voxels,” which are like pixels but in 3D space. They’re sort of like a Rubik’s Cube, but the size of a football field or a Hollywood studio. Here’s a brief sampling of the stuff Intel can do with voxels:
- It can make music from sensors attached to a glove
- It can use dozens of cameras to track football players and let you see the game from their perspective
- It will use those same cameras to turn the Winter Olympics into a VR experience
- It created a studio that shoots a scene from a hundred angles, so it can be cut and recut from any perspective
- It can partner with other companies to create new VR experiences
- It can help self-driving cars know where they are on a road
- It can help “flying cars” know where they are in the air
- It can make tiny drones dance around indoors, knowing where they are without the need for GPS
It could have all come together for a pretty amazing story, one that might have convinced people that they do indeed want the kind of direct connection to Intel that they have with Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, and Google. In particular, starting with sports was smart. It’s the kind of stuff that has fewer intermediaries between Intel and the consumer.
Nothing Intel did in its keynote was easy
But that story about translating space into data into experiences got a little lost. It’s a difficult, cerebral thing to try to convey, and Intel didn’t quite pull it off. What it did pull off was staging a handful of experiences that were impressive to see in person: the dancing Shooting Star Mini drones and the LED-besuited acrobats were spectacles to rival anything at CES, while a more standard self-driving car demo was followed by a demo of a flying taxi powered by Intel drone tech.
Nothing Intel did in its keynote was easy — not from a technological perspective, not from a production perspective, and not from a narrative perspective. The technology worked and the production was very, very good. Two out of three ain’t bad, I suppose.
Intel is juggling so much that it’s hard to see the throughline that consumers should really care about. And it’s doubly hard when the actual thing consumers care about right now is the security of their data and the speed of their processors in the face of unprecedented security vulnerabilities. A few months from now, we’ll still be talking about Meltdown and Spectre. It’s hard to know if we’ll be talking about anything Intel showed off at CES.