THERE will be one billion networked computers in the next six years, and just under one computer for every six human beings on earth. That's what Dr Craig Barrett, CEO and president of the world's largest chipmaker Intel Corporation, always has in his mind when he talks of e-commerce.
But computers can penetrate even deeper if they can be simplified. Barrett would like the computers to be like, maybe, TV or radio—you switch it on and it starts running. And with no complicated procedures to be followed before switching it off. "The biggest fresh ground you need to break isn't so much in the software but the ease of use. That's the biggest stumbling block we have today," he says.
On a two-day whistle-stop tour to India—his third in as many years as the Intel chief—Barrett is closely monitoring his company's strategic investments into small Indian companies, which have "exciting technologies".
"India has the ability to be the world leader in value-added software," he declared, announcing his intention of helping India develop digital and entertainment content, in keeping with the current global demand. To supplement the company's venture capital efforts, Barrett also addressed a gathering of nearly 300 management information systems (MIS) managers in Delhi and a similar number of broadcast professionals in Mumbai. Just to let them know what chips with higher processing speed can do and that they are a must for tomorrow.
Higher and higher and higher processing speed—that is what drives Intel, the company which invented the microprocessor chip, that made desktop computers possible, and gave it unparalleled dominance over the global PC market. Around 80 per cent of all PCs on earth have an Intel chip inside.
What can higher processing speed achieve for the common man? Sample one: You are visiting the website of Delhi's central market complex Connaught Place (the site is in the process of being finalised) and decide to check out the latest fashion available at a designer showroom. You look at the dresses and home in on two. But which one of the two should you buy: the red or the blue? With high enough processor power, you can make a mannequin wear the dresses; you can even make her dance to ensure you know how you will look! But will the mannequin look like you? No problem, change the skin tone to suit yours!
But what seems to have been happening is that the moment chip processing speed rises, software programmes become heavier, so the customer does not get the scale of benefits that should have accrued to him: what is referred to as the "Wintel (Windows from Microsoft and Intel) conspiracy". Barrett would rather dismiss questions about this. "No 15-year-old has enough processing power," he says, referring to their demand for games with a lot of graphics, that is, higher processing speed. "You would have to be a middle-aged person to say that we have enough processing power."
Speech recognition is one area whose implementation in various spheres will require chips with very high processing speed. This could lead to consumer durables which have the ability to listen to the orders of their master. And when these applications have to be transmitted through a telephone line, there is a lot of compression and decompression of electromagnetic waves which has to take place—something which will require more processing power so that the entire thing can happen in real time.
Speech, video conferencing, animation and visualisation—all these areas will require faster microprocessor speed. And keeping that in mind, all the chip manufacturing companies have finalised plans of introducing 1 GHz processors (the present generation processors are 450 MHz). "They should be in the market in the next two years," Barrett says.
By strange coincidence, the Intel chief was visiting the country just when a raging controversy has dampened the chip giant's sales in India. The Customs department had decided to levy higher duty on the Pentium II processors because the new generation chips are classified as modules, not as components, thereby attracting higher duty. Barrett chose not to duck questions about the controversy. "A country which has its vision in software, to place restrictions on hardware, is a contradiction in terms," he says. In fact, the issue came up during Barrett's discussion with senior government officials as well as with the government's Information Technology Task Force.
There is a little piece of advice that he has. "If you want to be a software powerhouse and the vision of the country is hundreds of millions of computers connected to the Internet, and that will be the basis for much of the value-added soft-ware, then you better make the Internet available as easy and inexpensive as possible." Hopefully, the government, which is scheduled to announce steps to privatise Internet services in the next couple of weeks, is listening.