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Mike Bell Explains Intel's Big Bet on Small Devices (Interview)

The company can succeed in wearables even though it has failed to make much of an impact in smartphones.

Not that long ago, Mike Bell was leading Intel’s charge to regain ground in the phone and tablet space.

Then, fairly abruptly in May he was shifted to a vague new business around emerging devices. Six months later, that move is starting to come into focus.

Bell’s New Devices Group is taking center stage during Intel’s keynote speech on Monday night. As Brian Krzanich told Re/code in an interview last week, Intel is showing off a number of nearly production-ready wearable devices as well as a new version of the company’s Quark chip designed to turn almost any object into a “smart device” with wireless capabilities.

That latter chip forms the heart of a tiny computer, dubbed Edison, that aims to allow those with a vision for smart clothes or smart dishes or smart whatevers to create their product without having to design their own computer or connectivity piece. Onstage, Krzanich is showing Edison powering a smart onesie for babies that can detect a temperature spike or other issues.

Intel isn’t alone here. Other chipmakers, including Broadcom, have similar efforts, though Bell and team have managed to cram Edison into something the size of an SD memory card.

As for the wearable devices, Krzanich will show off a pair of headphones that have a built-in heart monitor, an earpiece with an always-listening virtual assistant known as Jarvis and yet another smartwatch, though that is there mainly so Intel can remind folks it can do that, too. All of the devices can be charged wirelessly in a striking black bowl that supports an approach backed by the Alliance For Wireless Power (A4WP) — one of several competing wireless charging approaches.

Bell said he challenged his group to create a charging station that looked like it came from the Museum of Modern Art catalog rather than Silicon Valley. Indeed, Bell said all of the products from his group have been approached from that mindset.

Many of the early products on the market look like a cellphone strapped to a wrist.

“That’s not good enough,” he said. “We have to go further.”

Bell wouldn’t say exactly how many people are part of his effort, though he said it was more than 100 and fewer than the thousands he had when he was running the phone-and-tablet effort.

“It’s not just a hobby for Intel,” Bell said.

Intel has all the products being shown nearly ready, but plans to let other companies actually bring them to market over the course of the next year, though it isn’t naming its partners just yet.

“We’re showing what’s possible,” he said. “We will work with other companies to bring them to market.”

But perhaps even more surprisingly for Intel, they have also worked on the aesthetics of wearable computers. Bell has brought in designers from Nike, Oakley and elsewhere to ensure that Intel powers wearables that someone might actually want to wear.

Hans Moritz, the former Oakley designer who serves as Bell’s VP of design, said that it is exciting to be joining a high-tech firm but he isn’t about to start wearing khakis like his Intel brethren.

“It’s very eye opening to go from the fashion world and the world of products to a world that is pure tech and silicon,” Moritz said.

In addition to what Intel is showing off at CES, Bell said his team is working with design firm Opening Ceremony on some sort of high-tech bracelet that will be sold at Barney’s department store. Bell wouldn’t say exactly what the device will do, saying his unit hopes to steadily reveal its projects in the coming months.

“We’re doing other things that we are not talking about,” he said.

One of the big hurdles is that, in trying to crack the wearable market, Intel is essentially hoping to be successful in a category of products an order of magnitude smaller than phones, where the company has had little success, as ARM-based rivals own nearly the entire market.

“The phone market really is a two horse race,” Bell said, repeating the position taken by Krzanich that Apple and Samsung control the phone market and it is going to be tough to make meaningful inroads without winning over one of those two customers. “It’s less about architecture.”

Wearables may be a focus of Krzanich’s keynote, but they aren’t the only topic. He is also using his inaugural appearance on the CES stage to announce:

  • an effort to power computers that can run both Windows and Android.
  • a new Intel Security brand to replace the McAfee name it acquired, though Intel is keeping McAfee’s red shield. Intel also plans to give away free security software for Android and iOS, with more details in the coming months.
  • a process that Intel has put in place to ensure that its chips don’t contain materials that are funding the conflict in Congo.

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