Intel is staking much of its immediate future on 5G wireless technologies and the Internet of Things (IoT). At the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco this week, it showed off its latest efforts, including a new compute module called Joule that Intel customers will put to work inspecting aircraft, monitoring pedestrians, and more.
Continue Reading Below
Unlike 4G LTE's massive speed gains over 3G, 5G is a catch-all moniker for a number of different technologies, many of which will be more intelligent, but not necessarily faster than its predecessor. 5G is widely seen as critical to IoT, but Intel has been relatively slow to the 5G game: several of its competitors in the mobile processor market, including Qualcomm, have been conducting field trials with wireless carriers for months.
But Intel has repeatedly said it is committed to 5G and IoT, in no small part because its most valuable customers are demanding that commitment. It will begin 5G trials in 2018, and plans commercial deployment by 2020. Although Joule is a current-generation product and thus doesn't have 5G capabilities, it offers a hint of what an IoT future will bring, once the wireless specifications catch up.
Joule is tiny, about the size of two quarters placed side by side. There's impressive power in that small package, though: a 64-bit, 1.5GHz quad-core Atom processor, 3GB of RAM, and 8GB eMMC memory. Joule also has Bluetooth 4.1 and an 802.11ac Wi-Fi radio with MIMO, though it's lacking cellular connectivity.
Those specs, in addition to integration with Intel's RealSense camera, make it and similar devices attractive for industrial applications. Without getting into specifics, General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt joined his Intel counterpart Brian Krzanich on stage at IDF to explain that Intel's IoT devices will "drive productivity" for GE's engineers in connected factories.
But other developers—Intel said there were nearly 6,000 of them in attendance at IDF this year, a new record—offered more concrete examples. Firefighters' health will be monitored remotely as they battle backdrafts. Aircraft inspectors will wear connected VR glasses to help them diagnose problems without consulting paper manuals. Food truck companies could plan where they go based on which food is popular in a given neighborhood. There's even Grush, a Bluetooth-enabled, motion-sensing toothbrush that will go on sale this year, using interactive mobile games to guide kids' brushing and lets parents track the results.
"The shift to 5G will be as profound as the shift from analog to digital," said Murthy Renduchintala, Intel's IoT president. His comments echoed those made earlier this year by his colleague, Aicha Evans, who heads up the company's mobile chip division.
"5G is not just a faster connection," she said during a media briefing in February. "It's going to require us to take into consideration spectrum availability. We waste a lot of our resources today. In some cases, we don't need the speed."
Indeed, Intel expects that the billions of IoT devices that will pop up by early next decade will demand bandwidth unfathomable by today's standards. By 2020, each person will generate 1.5GB of Web traffic per day, Krzanich said, while a typical self-driving car will generate 4TB per day. Intel engineering fellow Ken Stewart estimated that a typical connected city of the future will just under 10,000 IoT devices per square mile.
All that traffic, if not managed properly, could cause major bottlenecks, some of which could endanger safety, at least as far as self-driving cars and firefighting are concerned. They won't all be Intel devices, of course. But if Intel delivers on the promises it has made to developers at IDF, they can count its corner of the IoT market being both fast and smart, even if Intel delivers them years after some of its competitors.