By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc. April 19, 2017
Anyone who doubts the natural evolution of businesses and markets hasn’t spent much time around the tech industry where fame is ephemeral, riches are quickly won and lost, and market trends follow the merest customer whim. But at the same time, certain events fall into the bellwether category, including Intel’s announcement this week that it is retiring the Intel Developer Forum (IDF) program just short of its 20th anniversary.
The announcement prompted a good deal of interest, especially among IT industry analysts and the press for whom IDF has long been a mainstay. The conference offered a great way to keep current with the strategy of one of IT’s most singular vendors and its partners. Plus, IDF typically offered numerous insights into new Intel strategies and technologies.
However, change is not only inevitable. In a tech industry and markets mostly entranced by whatever comes next, change is imperative. The fact is that Intel and the tech industry are both hugely different today than they were when the conference was launched in 1997. As a result, the singular strategic purpose IDF once drove is mostly in the rearview mirror.
Intel in 1997
What was happening in 1997 that led Intel to launch IDF? For one thing, the company was both extending its massive success in desktop computing components and beginning a substantial shift toward the data center.
In its FY1997 annual report, published a few months prior to the first IDF, Intel noted that it had launched both its latest Pentium II with MMX technology chips and the first of its popular “BunnyPeople” ads featuring actors in colorful clean suits. The company also introduced the IA-64 architecture and “Merced” processors (rebranded “Itanium” in 1999) that meant to replace proprietary workstation and server chips.
Intel’s data center footprint is so massive today—it sells well over 90% of the chips in servers shipped annually—that it’s difficult to imagine the company as the upstart it was then. Intel’s Pentium Pro chips were used in basic tower servers and for some Web and file and print applications. The Pro line was rebranded Xeon in 1999 but it took several years and complementary innovations, like deepening Linux adoption and VMware virtualization for Intel to get fully up to speed.
So, from a marketing/messaging standpoint, launching an event designed to clearly explicate and unify Intel’s new products and increasingly complex market strategies made perfect sense. In addition, it was critical for the company to engage directly with the partners and developers who were turning Intel silicon into salable products, and align them with its vision of technical and commercial opportunities.
So where do things stand today? Intel is obviously a larger company. Revenues in FY2016 totaled just under $60B whereas the company drove just over $25B in sales during FY1997. More importantly, Intel’s focus areas and target markets are far broader and more varied today than they were 20 years ago.
How broad exactly? The IDF retirement announcement includes a link to Intel’s Resource and Design Center, a site with links for designers, developers and engineers interested in to the company’s solutions. Those areas include:
- PCs, including 2-in-1s, AIOs, compute sticks, mini PCs, notebooks and towers
- Mobile devices, like phones, tablets, and modems
- Data center offering, such as server and storage platforms, boards, chassis and systems
- Embedded, IoT and industry technologies, including processors, modules, and boards for IoT solutions, like industrial, healthcare and retail
- Connected home offerings, such as gateways, home connectivity, broadband access and security
- Applications and software, including tools, SDKs, articles, and resources for application developers
- The site also offers links to Intel’s latest Arduino 101 Board, Edison Module and Joule Module technologies.
It should be noted that each of these sections could be easily divided into multiple subsections beyond those listed. For example, the data center offerings could focus considerable attention on cloud computing, hyperscale data centers, high performance computing, technical computing and supercomputing areas where Intel enjoys commanding success.
Plus, it might include materials on data center-related company investments, such as its $16.7B acquisition of Altera and its market-leading field programmable gate array (FPGA) technologies. Or it could point developers and other interested parties toward new, organically developed Intel technologies, like the recently announced Optane storage/memory solutions.
The point is that Intel today is a far different company and vendor than it was twenty years ago, with wider horizons, deeper penetration in numerous markets and industries and considerably more complex partner and customer relationships. It could be argued that Intel’s evolution over the past two decades mirrors similar transformations among its strategic partners, customers and competitors, as well as the Intel-related communities IDF was designed to serve.
Collectively, these points highlight how difficult it is for Intel to adequately address its strategic imperatives and commercial constituencies with a single annual conference, like IDF. Instead, the company and its developer, engineer and designer communities are likely to be better served with smaller, more targeted events and interactions.
That doesn’t mean that the Intel Developer Forum won’t be missed. In fact, the company should proceed carefully and clearly enunciate its reasons for retiring IDF or risk alienating key partners and customers. It would also be good for Intel to place a stake in the ground and describe the sorts of future engagements that will replace the conference.
Those concerns aside, IDF leaves behind nineteen years of memories that parallel Information Technology’s growth from an energetic, promising niche market into a force for industry and global innovation. Here’s hoping that the next two decades are just as promising.
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