I sat there refreshing Twitter, waiting for the promised announcement to land on the @IntelGraphics feed, trying to remember if I’d ever waited for a Twitter-based NDA before. Ah, there it was, an announcement about “The Odyssey.” Intel used a bunch of words that sort of made sense, but there was no clear or cohesive understanding of what, exactly, this Odyssey thing was or why it existed. We just knew that it had something to do with Intel’s bold and risky discrete graphics endeavor. Along with the announcement, you could sign up for events at locations across the globe, but again, there were no further pertinent details. We reached out to Intel for some answers, and we ended up on the phone with Chris Hook, Intel’s director for Visual Technologies Marketing.
Any update on those discrete graphics?
Hook confirmed some of what we already knew about Intel’s discrete graphics. The company is planning a whole stack, from its existing integrated graphics all the way up to the highest end. Intel plans to duke it out with Nvidia and AMD on gaming, but also has an eye on the data center, and on content creation, and expects to ably serve graphics capabilities to its one-billion-strong install base.
The blue wave of Intel graphics will begin crashing on our proverbial shores starting in 2020. For consumers, that feels like a long ways off; but for the people inside Intel working on the launch(es), it must feel like a downright claustrophobic amount of time.
There is so much we don’t know about Intel’s planned hardware, including simple blocking and tackling like whether it will have ranks of AIB partners like AMD and Nvidia do, or if it will make its own cards, or both. Hook admitted that they (meaning the Intel discrete graphics evangelists) need to start revealing more of those sorts of details. And they will, soon. For now, the job is generating buzz, building up expectations, and showing activity of some kind. That’s where the Odyssey comes into play.
What is the Odyssey, exactly?
Simply and crassly put, the Odyssey an effort by Intel to simultaneously goose potential customer engagement, engender goodwill with the enthusiast community, and conduct granular and grassroots market research. “The Odyssey” is just a fancy name for a forum-type program that includes communications like newsletters and social media, with a live event component.
“The Odyssey is a whole bunch of things,” said Hook. “It’s a beta program, it’s a two-way conversation, it’s a listening opportunity, and the net result I’m hoping for is that once we start to launch more visual computing platforms—discrete graphics, things like that—that the community is going to be excited because they’d had a chance to provide that input and are getting products and technologies that they’re really excited about.”
Appropriately enough, the Odyssey’s origin story has grassroots, uh, roots. “The engineering teams at Intel really want to do the right things in terms of bringing a better visual experience to market, whether that’s from the perspective of having drivers on day one […] or having better gaming controls in a control panel,” Hook said. “But there wasn’t that connection between engineering teams and the community. That was an opportunity for us.”
So they began experimenting. After a Reddit AMA with some of the Intel Graphics folks proved successful from a marketing perspective, Hook said “We took that on tour inside the company, and we went door to door with it.” He noted that they received “great feedback” internally, as well as key insights they hadn’t gleaned before. Then they decided to formalize the whole thing, and the Odyssey was born.
The live events
One of the most confusing bits about the original announcement was a page where you were supposed to sign up for live events at geographic locations around the world. But there were no dates, and no details. Turns out, this is a long play. Intel wants the Odyssey to have a strong community meetup bent, but it needs to tinker with the format.
The first pilot meetup will be March 20 at GDC in San Francisco. “The people who joined the Odyssey in the Bay area will be invited to that and will be allowed to attend on a first-come, first-served basis,” Hook said. Intel people like Raja Koduri will be there, and there will be technology demos. “But really, we’re using it as a platform to meet the community, and also to kick off a beta program for the new control center that we’re rolling out in the first half of 2019,” Hook added.
The idea is to have a little fun while offering real opportunities for Intel to engage with enthusiasts. “We’re not going to put people through a two-hour presentation,” Hook assured us. “There will be a short, quick, 25-minute presentation. We’re going to formally announce the new control panel [and] the beta program.” He said there will be “special guests” from the gaming community, as well as discussions about issues in gaming that graphics and visual computing platforms can allegedly solve. To be clear: It’s a meetup, not a press event.
Depending on how it goes, and the feedback from attendees, Intel will adjust its approach to future events—the ones that you can sign up for but that don’t exist yet. And the company is trying to gauge interest in those events with that informationless signup page, hoping to understand what sort of numbers to expect. Perhaps only a few hundred people will show up to São Paulo, but maybe they could nab 10,000 for Beijing.
Who is the audience?
Technically, this is all open to the public, but Intel hopes to attract a certain type of “public.” They’re targeting true enthusiasts, the ones who deeply care about these things and have some knowledge about them. For example, Hook said they reached out specifically to enthusiast PC media outlets like The Tech Report rather than a more general audience. (Wait, does that make us pawns? Dangit!) The @IntelGraphics Twitter handle is even strategic, designed to separate all Intel users (which, again, is around a billion people according to Hook) from the main @Intel handle to a more specific category.
Thus, although technically the Odyssey and the associated events are open to the public, Intel’s strategy it to lure in hardcore enthusiasts rather than the unwashed masses. The events are tuned that way, too; the “celebrities,” for example, are Intel engineers, not movie stars.
Slaying sleeping giants
We couldn’t let Hook go before pressing him on the big, burning question: Why is Intel doing all of this? PR and events aside, making a dent in the discrete graphics market is a formidable task, to say the least. Intel already has its hands full, with the decline of Moore’s Law and public whiffs on process node shrinks denting the chipmaker’s armor, not to mention the “ryze” of AMD as a true competitor in the CPU space over the last couple of years.
Hook fully acknowledges the great challenge that looms ahead. But he’s optimistic, and he makes it seem like Intel is positively crackling with excitement over its discrete graphics endeavor.
Of course, this is precisely the time to be excited. Intel has recently looted AMD’s RTG group of talent, and there’s what amounts to almost a blank slate that all those engineers can work from. It’s true that Nvidia and AMD have had a 25-year head start, but for hungry and ambitious workers, the notion of putting their own stamp on a discrete graphics roadmap must be tantalizing. Enthusiasts are buzzing over the prospect of a true challenger to the graphics establishment. Nvidia and AMD are surely annoyed at best and worried at worst. And there’s still more than three full quarters before Intel has to show anything at all for its efforts. I imagine meeting rooms around the company are full of brainstorms and moonshots, and lots of new employees are enjoying the salary boosts that lured them from their previous employers.
Next year will be a different story. Expectations will be high, and consumers will be impatient. This is where the unbridled optimism gives way to pragmatism. “We’re not going to be able to deliver everything on January 1st, 2020,” said Hook. “It’s going to take time to do it right.”
Hook admitted that Intel needs to learn from past mistakes. He also said, bringing things back around to the original impetus for the conversation, that “I think for us to be successful, we have to look at discrete graphics as a grassroots movement.” (An odd take, perhaps.) He continued, “My belief is that something like the Odyssey […] really is the core of the marketing. And there’s still a lot of other things we have to do, but this is the thing we have to do first.”
Some of the practical parts, though, are themselves reason for optimism. Hook pointed to the roster of fresh talent, Intel’s rich graphics IP, and the investments the company has and will make into the venture.
I stopped him and asked if he thinks that Intel can and will spend what it needs to. Answer: “I absolutely do.”
He also pointed out that there may be an opportunity to catch the competition on its heels. Nvidia and AMD, Intel seems to have decided, believed that there would never be another serious entrant into the discrete GPU space. “It was clear that some of the market participants were getting really comfortable,” said Hook. He added, “At the same time, there are a lot of people who are disenchanted with Nvidia, and Radeon,” gracefully avoiding saying the name of his most recent former employer. “I think our opportunity to be successful is that we have to be joined at the hip with the community.”
The optimism re-emerged: “Between the talent, the IP block, and just the willingness to win, I think we’re going to do really well in the space. But,” he added with a tongue-in-cheek flourish that probably won him a gift card or something, “It’s…an odyssey.”
Indeed it will be. Competition always benefits consumers, so in that sense, Intel stomping its way into the discrete graphics market will be good for all of us. But in a year, we’ll see if chipzilla can begin to deliver on its promises.