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My Takeaways from GTC 2012

If you’ve ever taken a quick look at the Bench Press blog that I post to, you’ll notice quite a few posts that talk about the promise of using graphics chips (GPUs) like the kind NVIDIA and AMD make for gamers for scientific research and high-performance computing. Well, last Wednesday, I had a chance to enter the Mecca of GPU computing: the GPU Technology Conference.

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If it sounds super geeky, it’s because it is :-). But, in all seriousness, it was a great opportunity to see what researchers and interesting companies were doing with the huge amount of computational power that is embedded inside GPUs as well as see some of NVIDIA’s latest and greatest technology demo’s.

So, without further ado, here are some of my reactions after attending:

  • NVIDIA really should just rename this conference the “NVIDIA Technology Conference”. NVIDIA CEO Jen-Hsun Huang gave the keynote, the conference itself is organized and sponsored by NVIDIA employees, NVIDIA has a strong lead in the ecosystem in terms of applying the GPU to things other than graphics, and most of the non-computing demos were NVIDIA technologies leveraged elsewhere. I understand that they want to brand this as a broader ecosystem play, but let’s be real: this is like Intel calling their “Intel Developer Forum” the “CPU Technology Forum” – lets call it what it is, ok? 🙂
  • Lots of cool uses for the technology, but we definitely haven’t reached the point where the technology is truly “mainstream.” On the one hand, I was blown away by the abundance of researchers and companies showcasing interesting applications for GPU technology. The poster area was full of interesting uses of the GPU in life science, social sciences, mathematical theory/computer science, financial analysis, geological science, astrophysics, etc. The exhibit hall was full of companies pitching hardware design and software consulting services and organizations showing off sophisticated calculations and visualizations that they weren’t able to do before. These are great wins for NVIDIA – they have found an additional driver of demand for their products beyond high-end gaming. But, this makeup of attendees should be alarming to NVIDIA – this means that the applications for the technology so far are fundamentally niche-y, not mainstream. This isn’t to say they aren’t valuable (clearly many financial firms are willing to pay almost anything for a little bit more quantitative power to do better trades), but the real explosive potential, in my mind, is the promise of having “supercomputers inside every graphics chip” – that’s a deep democratization of computing power that is not realized if the main users are only at the highest end of financial services and research, and I think NVIDIA needs to help the ecosystem find ways to get there if they want to turn their leadership position in alternative uses of the GPU into a meaningful and differentiated business driver.
  • NVIDIA made a big, risky bet on enabling virtualization technology. In his keynote, NVIDIA CEO Jen-Hsun Huang announced with great fanfare (as is usually his style) that he has made virtualization – this has made it possible to allow multiple users to share the same graphics card over the internet. Why is this potentially a big risk? Because, it means if you want to have good graphics performance, you no longer have to buy an expensive graphics card for your computer – you can simply plug into a graphics card that’s hosted somewhere else on the internet whether it be for gaming (using a service like GaiKai or OnLive) or for virtual desktops (where all of the hard work is done by a server and you’re just seeing the screen image much like you would watch a video on Netflix or YouTube) or in plugging into remote rendering services (if you work in digital movie editing). So why do it? I think NVIDIA likely sees a large opportunity in selling graphics chips which have , to date, been mostly a PC-thing, into servers that are now being built and teed up to do online gaming, online rendering, and virtual desktops. I think this is also motivated by the fact that the most mainstream and novel uses of GPU technology has been about putting GPU power onto “the cloud” (hosted somewhere on the internet). GaiKai wants to use this for gaming, Elemental wants to use this to help deliver videos to internet video viewers, rendering farms want to use this so that movie studios don’t need to buy high-end workstations for all their editing/special effects guys.
  • NVIDIA wants to be more than graphics-only. At the conference, three things jumped out at me as not being quite congruent with the rest of the conference. The first was that there were quite a few booths showing off people using Android tablets powered by NVIDIA’s Tegra chips to play high-end games. Second,  NVIDIA proudly showed off one of those new Tesla cars with their graphical touchscreen driven user interface inside (also powered by NVIDIA’s Tegra chips).
    2012-05-16 19.04.39Third, this was kind of hidden away in a random booth, but a company called SECO that builds development boards showed off a nifty board combining NVIDIA’s Tegra chips with its high-end graphics cards to build something they called the CARMA Kit – a low power high performance computing beast.2012-05-16 19.16.09 
    While NVIDIA has talked before about its plans with “Project Denver” to build a chip that can displace Intel’s hold on computer CPUs – this shows they’re trying to turn that from vision into reality – instead of just being the graphics card inside a game console, they’re making tablets which can play games, they’re making the processor that runs the operating system for a car, and they’re finding ways to take their less powerful Tegra processor and pair it up with a little GPU-supercomputer action.

If its not apparent, I had a blast and look forward to seeing more from the ecosystem!

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Motorola Solutions Takes on the Tablet

I mentioned a couple of months ago my recent “conversion” to the tablet: how I am now convinced that tablets are more than just a cool consumer device, but represent a new vector of compute power which will find itself going into more and more places.

One particular use case which fascinated me was in the non-consumer setting, what is mostly “fresh territory” for tablet manufacturers to pursue. But, whereas most manufacturers — like Lenovo and Toshiba — are taking on the non-consumer setting by chasing the traditional enterprise technology market, Motorola Solutions, which was spun out from the original Motorola alongside (but separate from) the consumer-oriented Motorola Mobility which was recently acquired by Google — they build things like hardware/IT systems for businesses and governments, has taken a much more customized approach (HT: EETimes) which really embodies some of the strengths of the Android approach.

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Instead of building yet another Android Honeycomb tablet, Motorola Solutions has built a ruggedized Android tablet called the ET1 (Enterprise Tablet 1 – hey, they sell mainly to industrial and government customers where you don’t need catchy names :-)), with the emphasis on the word “ruggedized”. Yes, it has a 7” touchscreen, but this really wasn’t meant for casual consumer use at home: its meant to be used in the field/factory setting, built with a strengthened case and Gorilla Glass screen (so that it can survive drops/spills/impacts), support for external accessories (i.e. barcode scanners, printers, holsters/cases), a special hot-swappable rapid charge battery pack so that you can re-juice the device without interrupting the device function, and a “hardened” (translation: more secure by stripping out unnecessary consumer-oriented capabilities) Android operating system with support for rapidly switching between multiple user profiles (because multiple employees might use the same device on different shifts).

Will this device be a huge success? Probably not by any consumer electronic manufacturer’s metric. After all, the tablet isn’t meant for consumers (and won’t be priced that way or sold through stores/consumer eCommerce sites). But, that’s the beauty of the Android approach. If you’re not building a consumer tablet, you don’t have to. In the same way that Android phone manufacturers/software developers can experiment with different price points/business models in Africa, manufacturers can leverage (and customize) Android to target different use models and form factors entirely to satisfy the needs of specific market segments/ecosystem players, taking what they need and changing/removing what they don’t. I don’t know for sure what Motorola Solutions is aiming to get out of this, but maybe the goal isn’t to put as many of these devices out there as possible but simply to add a few key accounts with which to sell other services/software. I have no idea, but the point is that an open platform lets you do things like this. Or, to put it more simply, as I said before about Linux/Android: “go custom or go home”.

(Image credit)

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The Prodigal Tablet Convert

lg-android-tabletWhen the Wifi-only version of the first Android Honeycomb tablet, the Motorola Xoom, became available for sale, I bought the device, partly because of my “Fandroid” love for Android devices but mostly because, as a Tech enthusiast, I felt like I needed to own a tablet just to understand what everyone was talking about.

While I liked the device (especially after the Honeycomb 3.1 update), I felt a little weird because I didn’t really have a good idea of why I would ever need it. Tablets, while functional and cool, were not as large in screen size or as powerful as a laptop (some of which are also pretty portable: take my girlfriend’s recently purchased Lenovo X220 or the new MacBook Airs for instance), they weren’t as cheap/didn’t have as long of a battery life/didn’t have the amazing displays of dedicated eReaders like Amazon’s Kindle, and they weren’t as portable as a smartphone. I was frankly baffled: just when would you use an iPad/an Android tablet instead of a laptop, eReader, or a smartphone?

It didn’t help that many of my friends seemed to give waffling answers (and no, it didn’t really vary whether or not they had an iPad or an Android tablet – sorry Apple fanboi’s, you’re not that special :-)) or that one of the partners at my fund had misplaced his iPad and didn’t realize it for a month! To hopefully discover the “killer application” for these mysterious devices, I pushed myself to use the tablet more to see if I could find a “natural fit” and, except for gaming and for reading/browsing casually in bed, the whole experience felt very “well, I needed a bigger screen than my phone and was too lazy to turn on my laptop.” So for quite some time, I simply chalked up the latest demand as people wanting the latest gadget rather than anything particularly useful.

ASUS_EeePad_Transformer_-550x412This changed recently when, on a whim, I decided to buy carrying case and Bluetooth keyboard for my Xoom. And, upon receiving it, I was kind of blown away. Although it looked (and still does) a little funny to me — why use a Tablet plus Bluetooth Keyboard when you could just use a laptop –  that was enough to change my perspective on the utility of the device. It was no longer just a “bigger smartphone” – it became the full potential of what the netbook category itself had aimed to be: an easy-to-use, cheap consumer-grade laptop replacement that was not sucked into the “Wintel” dominion of Intel and Microsoft. It was that realization/newfound purpose for the device (as well as a nifty $100 off coupon) which also sucked my girlfriend, a long skeptic of why I had bought a tablet, in to buying an ASUS Eee Pad Transformer and dock (see image to the left).

I know its not the most profound of epiphanies – after all, even in my first comment on the iPad speculations I had suggested the potential risk to Apple of letting the iPad be so good that it starts replacing lower-end Macbook Air/Macbook devices – but suddenly the ability to write longer emails/compose documents made my tablet the go-to device for everything but the most processor-intensive or intricate of tasks, and that, combined with the abundance of tablets I’ve seen in Silicon Valley business settings, has convinced me that the “killer app” for the iPad and the Xoom and the whole host of coming Android tablets will be as computer replacements.

So, (hardware and software) developers out there and folks who want to pursue something potentially very disruptive or who want the venture capital side of me to pay attention to you: find me killer new apps/services designed to help tablets more replace computers (especially in the enterprise – I have become somewhat enchanted by that opportunity) and you’ll get it.

(Image credit – Tablet) (Image credit – ASUS Eee Pad Transformer)

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Does an iTablet exist?

image If you follow the technology industry gossip, you’ll have heard the rumors that Apple will release a next-generation tablet PC at the end of January (kind of like Moses bringing tablets with the word of God?)

Industry gossip, especially gossip about Apple, is notoriously bad as the many analysts out there oftentimes fail to understand Apple’s business and misread the things that they hear.

However, given the very precise supply chain reports out there (as well as the #2 exec at European telecom firm Orange’s announcement that they would be a partner with Apple), I am leaning towards believing this device exists.

Granted this is all speculation (and there’s a significant chance the industry is getting excited over nothing), and my good (and very intelligent) buddy Eric disagrees with me completely (for good reasons), but my thinking on the subject stems from three things:

  • A rapidly growing device category exists – When I first heard of the netbook category, I scoffed. After all, what is the difference between a netbook and a very cheap, underpowered notebook or an extremely powerful smartphone? However, as time went by, I was forced to eat my own words. There seemed to be an enormous appetite for such a device (as judged by the rapid growth rate of the netbook category) which didn’t seem to cut too deeply into notebook sales at all. Intel has even come on record as saying that netbooks are rarely bought, if ever, to replace notebooks! Whereas mobile phones are likely to replace portable media players (like iPods), it seemed that people were drawn to the idea of something in between a workhorse laptop and a smartphone to be used primarily to access the internet. This is also borne out by the booming growth in eReaders like Amazon’s Kindle which provide special interfaces, like special touchscreens and displays, which are tailored for casual internet browsing and reading. If there is a place for Apple to continue its rapid growth trajectory, a device category with specific technical needs and with potential for rapid growth like this in-between-smartphone-and-notebook eReader/tablet/netbook device would be it.
  • Clear room for user interface innovation – The current generations of netbooks and eReaders could use some significant improvement. Most netbooks don’t (yet) support a touchscreen interface and rarely sport a user interface that really wows. eReaders today predominantly depend on current generations of black-and-white-only e-Ink displays which suffer from a very slow page-change rate. The potential for someone with the hardware and UI design chops that Apple has to implement a new generation of display technology and provide a much needed refresh in the control scheme for these devices is enormous, and it fits with Apple’s history of changing how the industry and the consumer thought of products like the smartphone and portable media player (iPhone and iPod).
  • A vertical model fits – Apple’s standard strategy is to build strong end-to-end solutions that encompass hardware, software, and services in a neatly packaged product. This helps Apple maintain the quality of product experience, as well as extract extra profit by creating  a powerful “walled garden” which prevents other companies from seizing control of Apple’s key features and sources of revenue. Take the iPhone for instance – Apple has built the phone, designed the operating system, created an application and music store, and negotiated the proper service contract with a wireless carrier. It doesn’t get more “all in one/vertical” than that! Similarly, if a tablet emerges primarily as a means to get on the internet and read books/publications/blogs, there are a number of clear ways for Apple to “go vertical” – including adding an eBook store to iTunes, charging publishers a fee to distribute their products to “iTablet” owners, building a subscription model for content access, etc. This wouldn’t be an easy battle, but given Apple’s success with mobile phone applications and digital music, there’s plenty of precedent for seeing Apple expand its “content empire” to other forms of digital content.

Of course, there are a number of good reasons why this prediction might not wind up being true:

  • image Apple doesn’t believe that the market opportunity is large enough. Is the growth in netbooks sustainable? Or just a product of the global recession pushing people to buy very cheap electronics? If Apple suspects its the latter, that would be a great reason to not distract management from more important tasks like maintaining or increasing its desktop/notebook market share or defending the iPhone’s market share against a growing Android threat (and potentially a resurgent Blackberry and Windows Mobile 7 threats).
  • Apple fears cannibalization. While Intel might view netbooks as a chance to sell more chips without interfering with its higher-end chips, Apple may fear that Apple notebook users, many of whom don’t need all the processing power that’s in their machines as they merely use them to surf the internet or watch movies/listen to music, will simply “trade down” and be tempted completely away from buying Apple’s higher end notebook models and hence jeopardizing Apple’s long-term growth and profitability.
  • Technological solutions to current problems aren’t mature enough. While the iPhone pushed the mobile phone industry, overnight, to adopt touchscreens, what is oftentimes not understood is that the touchscreen technology used by Apple has been around for quite some time (and were probably approved for use by Apple because they were mature). Many of the new display technologies to replace and/or improve on e-Ink are much less mature. If Apple has studied the problems facing current generations of tablet/netbook/ereaders and concluded that compelling solutions to them are still a year or two away, then, I believe that Apple would wait until they did come out to really storm the market.
  • Apple doesn’t think it can compete with a successful vertical model. If Apple felt it couldn’t use its standard playbook of providing services/content along with software and hardware, then that would be a big reason for Apple to not consider this mode. This could be because of the presence of large book-sellers like Barnes & Noble and Amazon in the eBook space (who do not allow non-Amazon/non-Barnes & Noble approved devices to access their digital libraries) or because of a powerful third party like Google which is already pushing one universal access platform for all eBooks. In my mind, this would be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, reason for Apple to think twice about entering the tablet/eReader space.

I’m glad my personal financial well-being doesn’t depend on me making the right call on this one :-), but push comes to shove, given the pretty-specific-supply-chain checks and the fact that I believe the threat of cannibalization and small market opportunity to be unlikely, I believe Apple will make this plunge, and I eagerly await to see how it will shape this new emerging device category.

(Image credit) (Image credit)

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