Secretive Intel quietly woos makers in China

Intel's logo at Computex.

The Intel logo, displayed on the company's booth at Computex 2015 in Taipei.

Credit: Martyn Williams

In addition to PCs and mobile devices, Intel is now trying to get hardware companies in China to develop drones, robots and IoT devices


Intel is in transition right now: An executive shakeup this month laid the path for new boss Venkata Renduchintala to put his imprint on the company's PC, Internet of Things and software operations.

So no wonder the vibe at this week's Intel Developer Forum in Shenzhen was mellow. Intel kept the show a low-key affair, choosing not to bring it to the attention of a worldwide audience, unlike previous years.

But IDF Shenzhen remains an important event on Intel's calendar. China is a huge  market, and it's also a place where the chip maker encourages small hardware shops in the alleys of Shenzhen to experiment with PC, mobile and now, IoT ideas.

There's also perhaps a strategic reason Intel didn't make much noise about IDF Shenzhen. The company this year has been generally quieter than usual, with fewer news announcements. There are also many questions brewing around products such as its Atom chip, which is struggling in smartphones and hasn't been updated for servers since 2013.

Intel instead is trying to bring some coolness to its brand by presenting its technologies at events like Fashion Week, the Grammy Awards, the Superbowl and the X-Games, where it showed off its server, wearable, and IoT technologies.

The chip maker even has its own reality TV show called America's Greatest Makers to reach out to the community of enthusiasts and do-it-yourselfers. Enthusiasts have not warmed up to Intel, relying instead on underdogs like ARM on top-selling developer boards like Raspberry Pi 3 and BeagleBone.

But small Chinese hardware companies have benefited from Intel's efforts to fund PC and mobile device development and are loyal to the chip maker. Intel in 2014 said it would sell 40 million tablet chips through subsidies worldwide, which helped Chinese makers in particular develop innovative devices and bring tablet prices down. Intel's move at the time was an attempt to catch up with ARM, which ruled the then-hot tablet market.

Intel sold 46 million tablet chips that year but took billions of dollars in losses in its mobile division. The outcome was considered a blunder for CEO Brian Krzanich, who has since opted not to make public declarations about aggressive sales goals.

However, judging from recent announcements, Intel believes it has a good chance with Chinese companies in the IoT area. Chinese hardware companies are usually quick to hop on to the latest trends, and Intel wants its loyal Shenzhen base to consider developing robots, drones, sensor devices, and other home and industrial automation products.

Intel at the show announced a "Makers Go Big" initiative, which "aims to foster the next generation of Chinese inventors and entrepreneurs," the company said. Intel will continue to invest in the Intel Mass Makerspace Accelerator Program, announced at last year's IDF in China to fund and support makers in China.

It is also exploring opportunities to work with local partners to replicate its Greatest Makers television program in China. That would be the first expansion for the TV show outside the U.S.

Also announced were the Robotics Development Kit for robotics and the Aero Platform for drones. At the center of both development kits is the RealSense 3D camera, which can recognize objects and determine their size, shape and contours . The 3D camera is like giving robots and drones a computerized eye to assist in navigation and avoid obstacles.

The Robotic Development Kit can be ordered from Intel's website for US $249 and it will ship later this quarter. It includes a credit-card-sized board from Aaeon with an Intel Atom x5 Z8350 CPU, integrated graphics, 4GB of DDR3 RAM, 32GB of storage, an HDMI slot, Gigabit Ethernet, two USB 2.0 ports, a USB 3.0 port, 40-pin GPIO port, a camera interface and an eDP (embedded DisplayPort) slot to connect a display.

The Aero Platform will have a flight controller, accelerometer, pressure sensors and programmable GPIOs. It will also have modules to support communications, storage, depth and vision capabilities. It will run on an Atom quad-core processor and be available in the second half 2016. Further details and price of the developer hardware will be available at a later date.

Intel also announced key software tools for its existing developer boards and SDKs. A software kit for the Curie wearable development hardware will allow developers to exploit USB and Bluetooth Low Energy features.

In addition, Intel unveiled an experimental RealSense Cross Platform API, which will offer tools for camera capture and "high-level vision functionality." That could aid robots and drones with image recognition. It will work with Linux, Mac OS X and Windows.

A separate RealSense SDK that offers a comprehensive suite of computer vision algorithms is already available for use with the 3D camera.

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