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How Intel Aims To Push Laptop Innovation Again With Project Athena

'We're in it for the long term, because we believe it's going to do wonderful things for the laptop industry and ultimately the customers who buy these laptops,' Intel exec Josh Newman says of the chipmaker's new Project Athena program.

It's not often you hear a semiconductor company talk about the stresses of everyday life and the need to reduce "cognitive load," but that's how Intel is approaching its new push to drive another wave of laptop innovation like it did back in 2011 with the Ultrabook specification.

With the new initiative, called Project Athena, Intel is creating a new kind of specification for ultra-thin laptops that is based on how people actually use their devices rather than benchmark tests that don't adequately reflect everyday use.

"What's really different about the Project Athena innovation program is it's rooted in this understanding of these human needs," Josh Newman, vice president and general manager of Mobile Innovation Segments at Intel, said at a presentation in mid-May.

The end result is a new wave of ultra-thin laptops and 2-in-1s that provide both consistent performance, powered by Intel's new 10th-generation Core processors, and long battery life, with as many as nine hours or more with regular activity, such as web browsing. These new mobile PCs will come with other modern features, such as wake from sleep in under 1 second, gigabit-speed Wi-Fi 6, Thunderbolt 3 connectivity, new artificial intelligence capabilities, fast battery charging and biometric login.

In an interview with CRN, Newman said these new laptops will create new refresh opportunities for channel partners. Project Athena laptops will include at least a dozen consumer and commercial models coming out this year from leading OEMs, including the updated Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 and HP Envy 13 Wood series.

"We want them to be very well prepared to be able to tell these stories, like explain why you should buy now, why these products are so different and exciting," he said.

While the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company has declined to disclose how much money it's spending on Project Athena, the company is making it clear that the program is integral to the future of its PC business as the chipmaker plans to replicate this model for other segments within the market.

"That's the new platform approach, and we'll do that in other segments in time as well," Newman said. "But this is really setting our new PC strategy in motion, of course building on the amazing technology we built, like the Ice Lake processor."

For Intel to get to this point, the chipmaker had to dramatically rethink how laptops are designed and engineered, starting with how the company determines specifications. That meant going back and looking at how everyday people use laptops in the first place.

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Making Life Easier For The 'Mobile Go-Getter'

With Project Athena, Intel is targeting a demographic of people that the company says exemplifies emerging trends in the workforce: the gig economy, freelancing, remote work and other modes of work where mobility and connectivity are key. These "mobile go-getters," as Intel calls them, use their laptops for both work or pleasure or both and don't necessarily fit the 9-to-5 office worker mold.

Phil Corriveau, a senior principal engineer and chief experience technologist at Intel, said one of Project Athena's top goals is to reduce "cognitive load,' referring to the everyday tasks and responsibilities people need to balance in their minds as they go about life.

"Life is very, very stressful," he said, "and there's two things that tend to happen: people get freaked out, and they want to know, 'help me organize my life, help me understand how I can go through my day without being stressed,' and then, 'make sure that I don't miss the important stuff.'"

Thanks to Project Athena, Intel is tackling those two needs through its largest scale research project yet of how people use their devices, including smartphones, throughout the day.

"We sit down with these users and we understand and document everything they do in their day," Corriveau said.

Newman, the head of Intel's mobile innovation group, said Dr. Melissa Gregg , a published social scientist who works for Intel, is leading the research efforts, which will continue in the years to come.

"Our intention is to have Melissa and her team and outside agencies going out on a regular beat rate for the next N years and just keep collecting more and more of these insights to fuel the program," he said.

This ethnographic work, combined with quantitative research methods, is helping inform Intel's new specifications for modern laptops as part of Project Athena, divided into six categories: performance and responsiveness, adaptive intelligence, worry free day of battery life, continuously fast and reliable connection, form factor and interaction and "ready to go before you are."

"It's no longer technology for the sake of technology. It's technology in service of user needs," Corriveau said.

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To Better Serve Users, Intel Rethinks Benchmarking

It's one thing to understand the needs of modern laptop users, but it's an entirely different task to translate those needs into new device specifications and test them based on real-life conditions.

One of the major promises of Project Athena laptops is that they will provide three features typically not found together in a single device: consistent responsiveness on battery, long battery life and the ability to instantly resume tasks after waking the laptop from sleep mode.

Intel is defining these requirements as "key experience indicators," or KEIs, which are meant to augment the traditional benchmarking Intel does to test a variety of capabilities in laptops.

"Project Athena is not about delivering on either one KEI or two or three. You must have to deliver on all of these at the same time," said Sudha Ganesh, senior director of systems and solutions assessments at Intel.

To test laptops based on these KEIs, Intel doesn't run typical benchmark tests where background services are disabled, no applications are running and default settings have been tweaked. Instead, the company replicates the typical real-life environments that have been documented in Intel's research, where the web browser and multiple "companion" applications are running at once, display brightness is high and default settings haven't been changed.

"That means we have at least four browser windows and Outlook open at all times," Ganesh said.

Intel then run tests meant to emulate the workflows of everyday users. This means that instead of testing to see if devices reach a certain benchmark score on a test, the company is testing the overall responsiveness of applications and the battery life. This includes testing things like playing video while on battery and maintaining an internet connection while the laptop is on standby.

With the results, Intel is looking to produce not specific performance targets but variables that fall within a range the company has found is acceptable for everyday users.

"I would rather be approximately right all the time versus precisely wrong all the time" Ganesh said.

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Getting OEMs And System Builders On Board

For Project Athena to succeed, it will need the support of OEMs, ODMs and system builders, as well as component makers. To encourage participation, Intel is providing not just marketing support but engineering support as well to ensure participating laptops work as advertised.

Intel is enabling the ecosystem in a few ways. For one, the company has started to hold ecosystem summits that bring together OEMs, ODMs and hardware and software vendors for classes on how to optimize components and support Project Athena's overall vision.

The chipmaker has also opened three Project Athena Open Labs that launched this month in Folsom, Calif., Taipei and Shanghai, where hardware vendors, OEMs, ODMs and system builders will submit their parts and systems for testing, optimization and verification.

"The basic idea was, 'we've been doing a good job together making the laptop better, but we have a clearer vision for how we all need to come together and look at power optimization and performance optimization and every component,'" Newman said, "because every laptop component matters, and we want to bring the whole ecosystem together to do that."

Majeed Salman, engineering manager for Project Athena, said engineers at these labs will use an assessment suite to test laptops before they are approved for the program. The suite is a script that takes a system ready for retail and checks for 23 requirements based on the Intel's new KEI tests.

For OEMs, ODMs and system builders to pass these requirements, they won't need to follow a specific build configuration, according to Kris Fleming, Project Athena's chief architect. Instead, they can choose how they can decide how to configure devices to meet Intel's KEI targets.

Intel plans to raise the bar for Project Athena requirements every year, which will be informed by the company's continuing research into how people use laptops and mobile PCs.

"We're in it for the long term," Newman said, "because we believe it's going to do wonderful things for the laptop industry and ultimately the customers who buy these laptops."

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No Consumer-Facing Brand — For Now

While Project Athena bears some similarities to Ultrabook and Centrino before it, there is one major way the new laptop program is different: no consumer-facing brand — at least for now.

That's on the mind of Kent Tibbils, vice president of marketing at Fremont, Calif.-based ASI, an Intel-authorized distributor. While he sees Project Athena as good news for the industry, he thinks channel partners would be best served with a brand they could use to promote the new laptops.

"With Ultrabook and Centrino, there was a brand that could do a lot of heavy lifting," he said. "If there's no brand on the side of Intel, how are they going to help deliver that message?"

Newman said while there are no plans for Project Athena to have a consumer-facing brand this year, it's something that Intel is considering for the future.

"We think in the future, it will make sense to do something that will help consumers find these laptops more easily," he said.

In the meantime, the chipmaker is dedicating its marketing resources to helping OEMs and channel partners with the messaging of what differentiates Project Athena laptops. On the channel side, Newman said this will include social media and advertising support, as well as physical marketing assets.

Over time, the company will consider all of its marketing assets, tools and options as the chipmaker expands marketing investments over time, according to Newman.

"We're going to keep ramping the marketing up, especially as we keep evolving the value proposition," he said.

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