My morning with Intel

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This morning I spent time on the Intel campus for the first time since I went there for a job interview in 1993. Back then, I packed an Apple laptop and wondered if Intel laser beams would slide down from the ceiling and blast my Motorola-powered PowerBook into oblivion. This time, I pulled out my black MacBook to take notes, knowing that I would be spared from any modern-day equivalent of those ’90s laser beams.

These are the things that a 12-year Mac journalist thinks about during his first official trip to an Intel-sponsored media event — in this case, the official coming-out party for Intel’s new Core 2 Duo chip family. It’s a weird journey, but here we are: Mac users who care about the latest round of chips from Intel. And all of a sudden, I’m attentively taking notes during a presentation that uses the phrase “the next Pentium” and yet, somehow, doesn’t mean it as a negative.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same. If you’re covering the mainstream PC market, an Intel chip-announcement event is an orgy of vendors and tidbits. Executives from Dell, HP, and Lenovo appear on screen to extol the virtues of Intel’s new architecture. Demo systems abound from numerous PC-makers. All of Intel’s key partners are present, beating the drum.

Except for — you guessed it — Apple.

Apple may be using Intel’s chips in its computers, but that hasn’t changed Apple’s status as a company that simply doesn’t run with the crowd. Other companies were happy to endorse Intel’s new chip family and explain how they’d be integrated into forthcoming models. Apple, on the other hand, likes to make big announcements on its own, rather than appearing as a face in the crowd at an event that focuses on a company whose name neither begins with A nor ends with pple .

In 11 days I fully expect that Steve Jobs will appear on stage at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference and introduce new Mac hardware that takes advantage of the Core 2 Duo. And that even more Mac systems will use the Core 2 Duo in the following months. But we’ll all need to wait for Apple to make those announcements.

In the meantime, Intel’s big party this morning came across as something a bit different for those of us focused on Apple and the Mac. It’s not the official unveiling of the exciting new Core 2 Duo era. Instead, it’s more of a teaser — a suggestion of what might be coming soon from Apple. It’s not necessarily the way Intel would like it, but that’s the way it goes.

Apple matters aside, Intel’s presentation was flashy, if a bit short on technical detail. Then again, I don’t think this is a situation that Intel can ever win: if the company goes too technical, they risk boring all the mainstream journalists to death. If it gets too flashy and glosses over the details, the guys from Microprocessor Report begin sharpening their silicon knives. Intel erred on the side of showbiz today, leaving the gory details for one-on-one discussions after the formal session was over.

One odd thing I noticed about Intel’s marketing was the heavy spin they put on the growth of the Internet. Essentially, Intel executives were suggesting that the growth of the adoption of the Internet by regular people will require fast computers powered by the Core 2 Duo processor. Although it’s a very easy picture to paint, I don’t really buy it: there’s nothing fundamental about the Internet that requires computers with a speedy new Intel chip inside. Rather, it’s the growth of rich digital media, like high-definition video, high-resolution digital photos, and ever-improving 3-D video games that will drive these new, ultra-fast computers. Intel executives mentioned most of that during the presentation, but kept falling back on charts showing the growth of the Internet. It felt very 1999 to me.

In any event, the Core 2 Duo won’t be real for Mac users until it’s really in announced Apple hardware. But in the meantime, the hype is certainly impressive: from all accounts, it sounds like the Core 2 Duo is a major speed breakthrough for Intel. (“This is not just an incremental change… This is a revolutionary leap,” said CEO Paul Otellini.) Intel claims that laptops will run 20 percent faster while offering similar battery life to current models. Desktops, meanwhile, should be 40 percent faster while using 40 percent less power.

We’ll see how the real-world numbers stack up when these chips arrive in real Mac systems, but it’s certainly enticing. And since the Core 2 Duo line includes models for desktops, laptops, and servers, it’s possible that we’ll see this chip permeate Apple’s entire product line — from an as-yet-unannounced pro desktop Mac to MacBook Pros to the replacement for the xServe.

But that’s a story for another day — the day when Apple’s damned good and ready to announce its products. Does August 7 work for you?

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