At Intel’s headquarters in Santa Clara, California, I got the chance to see the development process for two prototype devices that could be an early look at what might be coming next for computers. They’re dual-screen tablets that are unlike anything that’s on the market today, but they’re also very far from being finished products you’d want to use.
Intel really likes to show off prototypes. It’s a company that doesn’t directly sell you anything; instead, it has to corral a huge and fragmented ecosystem of PC manufacturers into making devices that use its chips.
Far too often, those prototypes go nowhere, and that has been especially true for the last few years. The company has casted about for something to drive interest as the industry looks for the next big thing after smartphones and tablets. It’s tried to drum up excitement for VR, self-driving technologies, smartwatches, AR glasses, and (my personal favorite) a bowl that will wirelessly charge gadgets you drop into it. Aside from some nice marketing from drone light shows, it’s pretty much all come to naught.
Now, Intel — like the PC industry — is at a crossroads. It has to put those childish things behind it and focus. Luckily for Intel, there are hints that the traditional laptop is ready to finally be supplanted by something new, and there’s no shortage of ideas about what that new thing might be.
Based on the rumors we’ve seen, a future where dual-screen or flexible-screen devices are possible is increasingly looking not just likely, but maybe even inevitable. And if those devices take off, they could be the most interesting thing to happen to PCs since the MacBook Air inspired the Ultrabook craze.
I wanted to see if Intel was finally ready to seize that opportunity.
The first prototype Intel showed us is called “Tiger Rapids,” and we’ve seen it a few times. It pairs one LCD panel with an e-paper display on the other side. Intel created it as a sort of Moleskine-like concept, something you could carry around with you everywhere. We weren’t there to just see the prototype; we were there to see how it turned into a real product.
That real product is the Lenovo Yoga Book C930. It takes some of the ideas that Lenovo had been working on along with some of Intel’s ideas and blends them together in a new kind of device. It’s radically thin and light for a PC, and it has an E Ink screen that can switch between typing, using a stylus, and reading.
It’s not the same thing that Intel was working on exactly, but it couldn’t have existed without Intel’s input on the original concept. Both Lenovo and Intel were working on similar ideas in early 2017, but neither had the whole picture figured out.
Intel did the task of reducing the computer parts down to something that would fit on a tiny board. It also figured out that the e-paper display should essentially serve as a USB-based accessory rather than a full-fledged Windows display. It made a whole Windows computer that was the size of a notebook.
The PC market is full of weird new ideas right now
Lenovo’s contribution was, in large part, to take everything it had learned from last year’s Yoga Book and apply it to Intel’s concept. It knew the screens needed to be bigger (so you could type on them). It had also done a lot of work with E Ink to reduce latency and get the software working.
The Lenovo Yoga Book C930 might seem like just another weird experiment — last year’s Yoga Book didn’t amount to much more than that — but you can also see it as an early sign of what’s coming next. It’s ambitious, awkward, but full of potential, not unlike the innovation in smartphones that started happening just before the iPhone.
”Traditional” computers are about to get a lot thinner, lighter, and more interesting. The iPad Pro is another sign, as is the new Surface Go, Google’s Pixel Slate, and what I expect will be a host of new form factors that try to replace the traditional clamshell screen-and-keyboard idea with something new.
Some of these ideas will bomb, but there’s enough smoke around the idea of changing what we think of as a computer that, eventually, I expect something to catch fire. And when that happens, Intel absolutely needs to be there. Missing a big wave like it did with the smartphone is not a mistake Intel can afford to make twice — especially now because the company really, really needs a win.
Intel has had a very rough year. January began with the Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities, which required PC makers to slow down their devices to fix the security flaws. It overshadowed a flashy CES keynote that showed off a lot of technology that had very little to do with what people think of when they think of Intel, namely chips.
After a year of terrible news, Intel really needs a win
Speaking of flashy concepts, the company decided to kill off the promising Vaunt smart glasses project, likely because it wasn’t able to decide if and how to bring it to market. Oh, and Intel also lost its CEO after he disclosed a relationship with an employee. As of this writing, the hunt is still on for a full-time replacement.
Though Intel is still the king of processors for PCs, it has not managed to get new, 10nm chips out the door, opting instead to add cores and features to its 9th Gen core series. The new processors do seem impressive, but they’re facing very real pressure from ARM, which is getting increasingly more powerful on devices like the iPad. (It’s also invading the Windows PC space, and it’s rumored to be coming to Macs, too.)
The PC market began an unlikely turnaround this summer, growing again for the first time in six years. That means, despite all of Intel’s problems, there’s still an opportunity — if the company can focus on what helped make it huge in the first place. It missed out on a decade of smartphones, but there’s still life in computers.
That brings us back to those Intel prototypes.
The new form factor that Intel is showing off is codenamed “Copper Harbor.” Like Tiger Lake, it’s a dual-screened device in a small form factor (a lot like what you might imagine the Microsoft Courier might have been). It’s remarkably thin and light for a full PC; it’s not quite pocketable, but it’s certainly smaller than all but the smallest Windows PCs. But unlike that Tiger Rapids prototype, the second screen on Copper Harbor is an LCD panel, not e-paper.
Intel has to do much more than just create a prototype to convince PC makers to use its chips. It has to make a functioning thing. Intel has to develop more than just the chip, it has to rethink the PCB and the thermals, figure out how the two screens will communicate with each other, develop a workable hinge, and put the whole thing together into something that will boot up.
In short, that means doing almost all of the same work any actual PC manufacturer would do to make a new computer. But even though it has to make a full, working computer, Intel won’t take the last step and sell it. Instead, it creates these devices that are something like 90 percent ready, then it works with manufacturers to bring those ideas to market.
The Copper Harbor prototype, which was shown to PCWorld back in June, is much smaller than a laptop. Intel has a few software demos that show off some possibilities for how it might work. In one mode, the display spans across both screens as though it were a large tablet — albeit with a big hinge in the middle. In another, you can take notes on one side while having your reference website on the other. You can also put it in a tent mode, with your PowerPoint notes on one side and the presentation on the other. Finally, you can unfold it and type on one of the screens like you would a regular laptop.
The Copper Harbor prototype works, but it’s still very much a prototype
Is all of this a good idea? I really don’t know yet. Intel has created a nice proof of concept, but it’s very far from a final product. If a company just took Copper Harbor and shipped it, it would be a disaster of a product. It’s unfinished, and Windows just isn’t designed to work well on two screens (to say nothing of the awkwardness of typing on a smallish keyboard on glass).
But you can see a lot of possibilities here in the hands of a deft product manager with a clear vision of a new kind of product. It could form the basis of something really incredible. With Copper Harbor, Intel has shown that the hardware isn’t some futuristic dream, but a real thing that could be made right now, if only somebody would take the time to make software that would sing on it.
Intel may not be able to get 10nm chips manufactured right now, but it can build a really fascinating — and functional — computer. Copper Harbor, for all its prototypey foibles, shows that the only thing keeping the industry from creating the next generation of computers is will and vision, not a lack of technological prowess. Intel still has that, and it’s pushing PC makers to take advantage of it.
It’s been nine years since the computer world’s collective imagination was lit up by a concept video posted on Gizmodo: the Microsoft Courier. The idea was simple, ahead of its time, and ultimately doomed. Instead of a single-screened tablet, it had two, each with different functions that could interact in interesting ways. You’d be able to fold it up to carry around, take notes with a pen, and, best of all, get a small device that could unfold into a bigger screen.
It became a piece of Silicon Valley lore. It was the idea that everybody hoped was right around the corner. The Courier was a vessel for everybody’s futuristic ideas of how software could work someday, and it was made all the more compelling because it wasn’t real but definitely seemed possible.
Now, in 2018, that idea is stirring once again. Only this time, it’s coming from more than one place and with possibilities that didn’t exist in 2009. Microsoft’s Panos Panay says that a “pocketable Surface” is “absolutely my baby.” And Samsung is rumored to be preparing a device with a flexible screen: something that can fold up but unfold to provide a seamless tablet-like experience. (One assumes Samsung’s device would run on ARM, though.)
Intel intends to be ready for that possibility. It has had a year of disastrously bad news, more years before that of making distracting concepts that didn’t relate to its core chip business, and a decade of completely missing out on the smartphone revolution. Now, the company has finally figured out that it needs to focus on what it’s good at.
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