Intel Finds Its Digital Heartbeat in a Teeny-Tiny Chip

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich unveils the Quark processor family at the Intel Developer Forum San Francisco, on Sept. 10 Photograph by Intel

In 1965, Intel’s co-founder Gordon Moore authored a paper that attempted to clue people in to a coming era of technological wonder. Cheap transistors, he wrote, would eventually lead to things like personal computers. A cartoon included in the paper showed the machines being sold in department stores alongside “notions” and cosmetics. What’s more, people could expect to see “a proliferation of electronics” that would likely include clever wearable devices like smart wristwatches.

The paper (PDF) reads as so prescient that you come away feeling like Moore must have had a crystal ball at his disposal. And yet, if he did, he didn’t share it with other executives at Intel. Here we are in 2013, and Intel has only just come out with a product capable of fulfilling Moore’s vision. It’s called Quark, and Intel unveiled it at the company’s flagship customer conference on Tuesday in San Francisco.

Compared with Intel’s chips that go into servers, PCs, and even smartphones, Quark is a pipsqueak. It’s about one-fifth the size of Intel’s smallest chips and consumes about one-tenth as much power. Intel bills Quark as the type of chip that could make its way into those watches championed decades ago by Moore and eventually into even smaller things like body sensors.

Intel is late to the game—and how—with this type of technology. Dozens of companies make so-called microcontrollers and embedded processors that go into things that need a bit of computing oomph, ranging from something like a Fitbit step tracker to a dishwasher. These smart devices have come to be sold under the Internet of Things banner and are expected to get smarter and do more over time.

Executives from Intel have spent years talking up the company’s plans to be the “digital heartbeat” behind all manner of products. The marketing team liked to champion the idea of Intel Everywhere rather than the old Intel Inside that accompanied the PC revolution. Truth be told, though, Intel did not really have a product to sell alongside the marketing shtick.

Historically, Intel has been able to sell its chips for tens, hundreds, and even thousands of dollars each, producing just about the highest profits in the industry. But microcontrollers and the like sell for dollars and pennies each, which explains some of Intel’s reluctance to charge into the market. Intel’s large, complex, and hot chip designs have also been ill-suited for running inside tiny devices.

With Quark, Intel will go up against companies such as Renesas Electronics and Freescale Semiconductor. It plans to show off products based on the chip next year, which should make Moore smile.

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