In a recent surprise message, Justin Rattner stepped down as Intel CTO. It's not because Rattner did his job poorly or due to infirmity. On the contrary, he was one of the leading visionaries in the technology market and he has more energy than most half his age. Rattner stepped down because he turned 65.
That's a sad and unfortunate reason to cause one of the most strategic minds in the industry to step down, so I want to use this week's column to point out some of the visionary things that happened during Rattner's term.
Putting Intel chips to good use
Most of the amazing labs that were around when I was growing up are now gone. This is largely because they often created amazing things that never made it to market; either the scientists making the discoveries couldn't market them to the business groups or the discovery itself was just something the company couldn't sell.
Xerox PARC, for instance, developed both the graphical user interface and the mouse. These made Apple and Microsoft the powers they became, but Xerox never benefited from either. HP was first with ebooks and smartwatches but it never sold either, while Kodak was first with digital pictures but likewise didn't capitalise on the technology. All this tech just got stuck in the labs.
Rattner pioneered open source development, which ensures that certain inventions actually make it into the world. While Intel generally doesn't build these technologies, they use Intel processors. This helps the company overcome periods when technology markets would otherwise stall and better assures sustainable long-term growth.
Intel's current efforts in self-driving cars, broadcast power and headlights that can magically drill through rain and snow are improving our world and finding new places where processors can be sold, thus expanding Intel's market opportunities.
How Intel puts people pack in development
Over the objections of some of Intel's own fellows, Rattner also drove through efforts to create labs examining how people interact with technology. I've often referred to this as Intel's Secret Weapon. Genevieve Bell, one of the most influential women in technology, runs this important function - and she's an anthropologist and ethnographer, not an engineer.
By focusing on how people interact with technology, Intel can better anticipate how to successfully drive new technologies into the market and create more effective interfaces that improve lives rather than just complicate them.
Intel's lead futurist, Brian David Johnson, is also working to assure Intel's future and our own. Among his projects, Johnson is helping children design the world they will live in as adults. Another project uses 3D printers to create robots that kids can build, customise and play with; Johnson plans to invade Burning Man with the result.
Robots, portrayed as dangerous to humans in movies such as Terminator and I, Robot, will more likely be helpful if the humans who will eventually use them grow up with them and think through the development process. In a very real sense, Intel is actively defining the future, thanks to Bell and Johnson and as a result of Rattner's amazing vision.
Engaging with the next generation of engineers
Intel, arguably more than other technology firms, aggressively engages with universities worldwide to create this future. Part of the reason is the open source development effort, but a great deal comes from the interesting projects Intel drives. These include projected touch workspaces, which let you interact with a projection much like you would a touchscreen, and artificial intelligence systems that actively manages and monitors discussion groups to both enhance the discussions and identify trends and conflicts. Imagine this processor-intensive AI use as a potentially defining feature of Facebook or Google+.
Students who work on practical projects find school far more engaging and interesting and arrive on the job market more capable of hitting the ground running for the companies they work for. Rattner helped create a system where learning is fun, effective and a strong foundation for success. A lot of young engineers will owe their eventual success to Rattner.
Age is but a number, and while it's a shame that Rattner is stepping down, he leaves an organisation that will always carry his mark and a generation of young engineers who will always carry his banner. Rattner has put humans into the development process and discovered that giving technology away can be far more beneficial to a company that creating it but failing to capitalise on it.
Rattner is a man before his time. I hope - no, expect - that he has many years ahead to do more incredible things. Rattner, it's been a pleasure to walk in your shadow, and I hope to continue to do so for the remainder of my own life.