CES Notebook: Intel's Inside Move

The chipmaker's play for the living room leaves open the question of content.
Author:
Publish date:

Editor's Note: Senior writer Troy Wolverton attended the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week. The following are some of his closing thoughts and impressions from the conference.

If at first you don't succeed...

Intel

(INTC) - Get Report

CEO Paul Otellini seemed to be following that familiar maxim last week, using about half of his keynote speech on Thursday to describe the company's new Viiv multimedia platform. Then, as if that wasn't enough, Otellini got to share the stage with

Yahoo!

(YHOO)

CEO Terry Semel during the latter's own keynote on Friday, again to talk about Viiv.

Maybe I'm just dumb, but even after all that, it still wasn't clear to me what Viiv was all about.

Sure, sure. The basics of Viiv are easy enough. Intel is envisioning a PC-like device that will be at the heart of consumers' living rooms. The device would be able to download movies from the Internet and display them on TVs, pump digital music through consumers' hi-fi speakers and be navigable with a simple remote control.

Of course, that sounds a lot like

Microsoft's

(MSFT) - Get Report

Media Center PC platform -- and dozens of other non-Viiv entertainment devices that have been introduced over the last couple of years. But what makes Viiv different, of course, is that it is based on Intel's chips.

In this case, Viiv is based on the company's new dual-core technology, which places two or more processors on one integrated chip. Viiv devices will use the same chips that Intel will be shipping for notebook computers, which will allow the new entertainment devices to be smaller, quieter, cooler -- and much faster -- than earlier products, according to Otellini.

But this is a new Intel. The company is no longer a mere chipmaker but a platform producer. Thus, it wasn't the new chips behind Viiv that were at the center of Otellini's presentation, but the content that consumers will be able to get on their Viiv devices. Users will be able to download and watch Bollywood movies outside of India, watch classic TV shows, download millions of songs instantly, choose their own Olympics highlights to watch, even watch Hollywood movies at home while they are still showing in theaters.

But it was more than just a little unclear how all this content would get to consumers and what it all had to with Viiv anyway. Otellini talked about deals with

Time Warner's

(TWX)

AOL and Yahoo!, for instance, each of which is offering a Viiv interface remarkably similar to that on Media Center PC. Somehow, I don't think they're all going to work nicely together.

And it turns out that there may be less to Viiv than Otellini was suggesting. At least with some of the content deals that Intel touted, the company is promising not so much that a Viiv device user will have access to particular movies or television shows, but that those digital services will run well on Viiv PCs. Ooh, exciting!

Maybe Otellini should have just stuck with the chips.

If Otellini's keynote was confusing, the one by

Google

(GOOG) - Get Report

co-founder Larry Page had all the makings of a disaster.

Instead of a slick, teleprompted speech touting how great the company's new products are, Page, dressed in a lab coat, spoke from notes written on several sheets of paper that he carried with him around the stage while pacing back and forth. As for his subject, he spent a good portion of his keynote criticizing the consumer electronics industry for its lack of standards for things such as power plugs and, unlike his fellow speakers, opened the presentation up for questions from the audience at the end.

Page, of course, did find time to introduce new products: Google Pack, a program that will keep a collection of key software programs up-to-date on users' computers, and a paid video downloading service. And instead of ending in a car wreck, his presentation actually became quite entertaining once comedian Robin Williams joined him on stage.

The guffaws that accompanied Williams' appearance seemed to help Page avoid real scrutiny of the company's latest offerings. After berating the consumer electronics industry for products that don't work well together and for producing numerous different plugs and cables that all do the same basic task, Page took a page out of the same book.

Users will only be able to view videos on Google's new video service by downloading the company's own video player which uses the company's own proprietary encoding, meaning that they'll have to download yet another media playing program in addition to RealPlayer, Windows Media Player and QuickTime already integrated on many PCs.

And Google announced a deal with

CBS

(CBS) - Get Report

that will allow Google Video users to download

CBS

shows from the service. At least for the time being, those videos aren't available anywhere else. So, while you can use one television to watch any of the three major networks, you'll have to use at least two different online video services to get the same programming over the Internet.

Page's speech may not have been a disaster, but those realities are certainly disappointing.

Speaking of multimedia -- which is becoming the annual theme of CES -- chipmaker

Sigmatel

(SGTL)

is hoping to head up the chain for such devices. The company, which supplies chips for

Apple Computer's

(AAPL) - Get Report

low-end iPod shuffle, has come out with a new, faster chip that it hopes will be built into more sophisticated -- and more expensive -- devices.

Sigmatel, which aims to be the Intel of MP3 chips, already has some 40 different companies that are working to design new multimedia players using its chips, according to CEO Ron Edgerton.

Edgerton sees the market for MP3 players growing 50% in 2006 from the 120 million to 125 million units sold worldwide in 2005. And, befitting someone whose company works with many of Apple's MP3 rivals, Edgerton sees those rivals, particularly those in Microsoft's PlaysForSure alliance, gaining share this year.

While few devices stood out at CES, at least one seemed to jump out of its screen.

LG Electronics

had on display a 102-inch full high-definition plasma display. That's about the size of a king-size bed.

No word yet from LG about how much the behemoth will cost -- or when it will be available.