PALM SPRINGS, Calif. -- How incongruous is this? Two thousand people are gathered in this town, which putatively has more swimming pools and golf courses per capita than anywhere else in the world, where it's sunny and warm, and where the horizon is ringed by the breathtaking sight of the San Jacinto and San Gorgonio mountains.
there isn't a set of clubs or a stitch of swimwear in sight. Instead everyone is holed up in dim rooms in the
Palm Springs Convention Center
. Here, virtual golf is what people play and a driver is something that runs a computer application.
This is the twice-a-year event software makers wait for. Anyone who is anyone in the industry is here, plus an assortment of techno-analysts and journalists. If the future in the finance world hangs on every word and gesture of Alan Greenspan, in the computer world it's the words and actions of semiconductor gargantuan Intel.
A Bugless World
: The overriding theme here is simplicity. "Don't miss the new ease-of-use wave," said Pat Gelsinger, vice president and general manager of the Intel desktop products group. Appearing soon at a computer store near you, Gelsinger promised, will be a machine that doesn't crash and on which every application runs properly. "For 10 years it ain't worked," he said. "Our challenge now is to make it work."
Intel is pushing, prodding and coddling software and hardware makers to once and for all produce a computer that turns on instantly with one button and turns off the same way -- without crashing your system or requiring you to read a manual or hire a technical assistance specialist just to install and use the programs. It's only taken Intel 15 years -- after Steve Jobs first thought of the concept and called it the
-- to champion "ease of use."
More on Drivers
: For those irritating sorts who insist on spending some time outside, Intel wants to make sure we can stay connected on the road. Hence the Extended Temperature Pentium processor, designed for the in-car computer to help out with navigation, communication, entertainment and information. You'll soon be able to tell your voice-activated computer to switch radio stations, find out what's causing the bottleneck ahead of you and pull up a road map to find you another way to get where you're going. Intel will have these chips ready for sale by the second quarter and priced at $49.50 for the processor and $26 for the chipset that goes with it.
If the overriding theme of this forum is simplicity, the point is ubiquity. Intel intends to be in just about any computerized device consumers can buy, whether it's intended for the home, the car, the office or the cell phone on which they chat while floating in the middle of the swimming pool.
Seeding the future
: And Intel is willing to spend big bucks to ensure the devices are all powered by Intel chips. Or at least Les Vadasz is. He's the director of corporate business development at Intel, and the man who decides how to spend the company's $2.5 billion venture capital fund. The fund has made investments in companies as varied as Linux software maker
, Webcast network
and cable modem chipmaker
Vadasz said he generally looks to buy stakes between 5% to 20%. Last year, he said, 20% of the investments were in companies outside the U.S., chiefly in Asia, Europe and Israel. The company doesn't take board seats, but occasionally it does appoint someone to "observe" on the board. "We feel our relationship with a company is in marketing and technology support," he said. "I expect that the venture capitalists who invest in the same companies we invest in work with the management. For that reason, many times we do not invest in a company if there is no VC investment."
For one company at least, Intel's investment has made all the difference. Paddy Holahan, vice president of marketing for Ireland-based Internet security developer
, said once Intel took a 6% stake in the company in January, the stock (publicly traded on the London exchange under the symbol ZGO) took off. Baltimore is garnering new respect in the industry. "Strategically, people give you the benefit of the doubt when you have Intel as a backer," he said.
Vadasz wants to invest in a company that can finally get the world hooked up to broadband, but has yet to find it. "I am absolutely fanatic about broadband," he said. "I don't think we've found the right button to push to get broadband deployment going. The service mechanism isn't there."
Does Intel prefer its broadband in cable, phone lines or wireless? "We are agnostic as to the transport mechanism," Vadasz said. "If spaghetti would carry data I would invest in it."