Intel is leaving PCs behind to highlight VR and IoT at IDF

This week's Intel Developer Forum is Intel's most important ever as the company lays out a new future

Intel's Navin Shenoy with a VR headset

Intel's Navin Shenoy wearing a headset at Computex 2016 in Shenzhen.

Credit: Intel

For decades, PCs were at the center of Intel's business, but not anymore.

Self-driving cars, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence are more attractive to Intel, which no longer views PCs as a priority. That's the message the company will try to deliver at Intel Developer Forum, starting on Tuesday.

IDF attendees will see drones fly around and robots roaming the floor, and they will be able to try on cool wearables and VR and AR (augmented reality) headsets.

Unlike past years, attendees won't be wowed with a lot of blazing laptops and desktops running upcoming PC processors. Instead, Intel will provide an insight into its internet-of-things and data-center strategies. 

PCs have been at the heart of Intel's operations, but that's changing. In April, the company started rebuilding itself around the fast-growing markets of servers, IoT, and connectivity, with the shrinking PC market becoming a lower priority.

It was a painful decision. The company laid off 12,000 people as part of the restructuring. Soon after, it jettisoned its pursuit of the mobile chip market, a doomed effort that cost the company billions of dollars.

Top Intel executives want the water-cooler talk among their employees to be about the new areas of focus, not about PCs. If the employees buy into the new focus areas, the change to a new Intel will be swift and successful, executives have said.

At IDF, the chip-maker will highlight virtual reality, IoT, and machine learning. Intel will show FPGAs (field programmable gate arrays), which are reprogrammable chips for servers, cars, and IoT devices.

"I still think we will see a little about their PC plans, but more on IoT and the data center," said Patrick Moorhead, president at Moorhead Insights and Strategy.

Intel won't spend a lot of time talking about its upcoming PC processors code-named Kaby Lake, which succeed the current crop of Skylake chips. However, Intel will likely demonstrate Kaby Lake PCs because the chip release is close. Asus and HP are readying products with the chips, and Lenovo and Acer will announce Kaby Lake PCs ahead of the IFA show in Berlin next month.

Intel will show off VR and AR headsets developed both internally and by partners. The company will show what seems like its version of Microsoft HoloLens, called Remote EyeSight, a set of head-worn AR smart glasses for remote collaboration.

Many of the VR and AR announcements will focus around its RealSense 3D camera, which can recognize objects, measure distances, and like Microsoft's Kinect, track gestures.

PCs still generate the most revenue for the company but ultimately could be replaced by data-center products like server chips and networking and storage equipment. Servers are involved in machine learning and in analyzing data sent from IoT devices, which will be a big focus at the show.

Intel will announce new Atom chips for IoT devices, drones and robots. Atom chips previously designed for smartphones and tablets are being reassigned to IoT devices like information kiosks, digital advertising signs, casino machines, and ATMs.

Intel is tying server chip sales to the number of IoT devices sold, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research. With more IoT devices sold, more server chips will be needed to analyze information in the cloud, he said.

Intel will also discuss its burgeoning AI strategy, which got a boost last week when it announced plans to acquire Nervana Systems, which offers deep-learning software and chip technology.

Intel is trying to catch with its competition on machine learning. Nvidia's GPUs drive machine learning at companies like Facebook and Google, and companies like KnuPath and Numenta offer specialized deep-learning chips. Google has announced such a chip called Tensor Processing Unit (TPU), which it is using internally.

On the last day of IDF, Intel is hosting a sideline conference called ISDF (Intel SoC FGPA Developer Forum), which, oddly, has rival ARM as a sponsor. These sessions will be targeted at developers working with FPGAs from Altera, which was acquired by Intel for $16.7 billion last year. Intel wants to put FPGAs in servers, storage devices, cars, IoT devices, robots, and drones.

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