Intel exec dishes on Project Athena

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Intel exec dishes on Project Athena

The new wave of laptops that come out of Intel's Project Athena innovation program will present new commercial refresh opportunities for channel partners, a company executive said.

Intel recently released new details for its Project Athena program which aims to create a new standard for ultra-thin laptops and 2-and-1s by incentivising OEMs and system builders to adhere to an annual specification in exchange for receiving marketing and engineering support.

John Newman, vice president and general manager of Mobile Innovation Segments at Intel, told CRN USA in a recent interview that the new Project Athena laptops coming out from leading OEMs will create new openings for partners whose customers target mobile workers.

"Because we believe deeply in the impact a great laptop has on a person's life, if we can land that with clarity and deliver the product truth behind that, then yeah, we think people will refresh faster, whether that's an enterprise — they have to look at their fleet and go, 'OK, wow, I've got to do something' — or consumer, who's like, 'OK, compared to what I have that's five years old, that now is a compelling value proposition,'" Newman said.

Only a few Project Athena laptops have been revealed so far, including the updated Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 and the HP Envy 13 Wood Series. But Newman told CRN USA that future laptops will include commercial models that sport Intel's vPro processors, which include an advanced set of management capabilities that can reportedly help businesses cut down on IT costs.

"One of the things that comes up a lot is, 'hey, I've got to offer better devices just to compete for the future workforce. I've got to offer them devices that meet their lifestyle and expectation. And that's where Project Athena is focused: on that more independent kind of person, who has a small business or entrepreneurial side gig, that thing that's growing like crazy," Newman said. "But [the research also] hits the same people that are coming into the traditional workforce, and the IT managers have to address their needs."

In the interview with CRN USA, Newman talked about how Project Athena's marketing efforts will impact channel partners, the scope of Intel's ethnographic research that informed Project Athena's specifications and where Project Athena laptops will fall price-wise.

He also discussed whether Project Athena could impact laptop designs using competitors' processors and how the company is planning to apply the Project Athena approach to other segments within the chipmaker's PC business.

The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

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You talked about how marketing is going to be a big part of Project Athena. Is that something that is going to touch the channel partners, like the resellers and the distributors in terms of thinking of new ways to sell these laptops?

Yeah, definitely, especially with the resellers. I think in year one, the first couple of years, the focus, at least on the designs themselves, will be the branded OEMs. But then for the resellers and the channel, especially in business, 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. And then the merchandising and the assets and the things we do to say, "hey, this is one of those great new laptops," those will absolutely be available in this channel as well.

How soon is that expected to happen?

As far as just doing things like social media, helping a channel reseller run some of their own ads or have in-store assets or online assets, you'll start to see that holiday of this year.

So some marketing resources. Sales training too?

Absolutely training. And then tools like an on-device tool that can run on the screen a point-of-sale, so we will infuse it into those types of things as well. I think the comment about the longer term, we're going to keep ramping the marketing up, especially as we keep evolving the value proposition. And so we'll look at all of our marketing assets and tools and options to really reach consumers more. But we're starting with let's start telling the influencers. Let's start training the retailers. Let's get that done, and then we'll think about how do you go even bigger to a broader consumer?

Is this a refresh opportunity for channel partners to sell into businesses?

We think it is. It comes down to having a clear vision for A) what the laptop is good at and why it's so important in people's lives and then B) what's going to be new and exciting and different about the experience. And so when we can land that with clarity, because we believe deeply in the impact a great laptop has on a person's life, if we can land that with clarity and deliver the product truth behind that then yeah, we think people will refresh faster, whether that's an enterprise — they have to look at their fleet and go, "OK, wow, I've got to do something" — or consumer, who's like, "OK, compared to what I have that's five years old, that now is a compelling value proposition." We believe if that happens, if we get the product truth there, the rest takes care of itself. 

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Can you at all quantify how much research is going into this?

I can't quantify dollar amounts, but it is a really big focus to make sure we have an always-on research cycle going. I think the one thing I would qualify is, our research lead on this — and we've actually used a few different sources, we've used outside agencies and the like — but we have a social scientist on staff who is a published author on this.

She's been writing about this and researching this for the past 10 years: this changing nature of work. And her name is Dr. Melissa Gregg. She's one of our senior principal engineers. And so she's published. She's got a couple books on this. So this is her passion project too, but she's really driving new research. She just did something [across multiple geographies]. And yeah, 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.

Are you doing both interviews and surveys for the research?

The research design, it's a lot of ethnographic work. So it's a lot of in-person, follow people around, look at what they do, really get to know them. So that's one of the really big primary research tools. There's certainly a lot of other quantitative online things we do to also test some of the qualitative insights we get. But it is a lot of that deep ethnography work that is really the basis for informing us.

With the scale of research you're doing for Project Athena, is this a first for Intel? Or has there been similar efforts in the past?

I would say it's the first we're doing at this scale. Chris and Melissa, who I mentioned earlier, they were actually working on different segments of Intel's business not too long ago, a smaller part of the market and because they were trying to enter the market, they took the approach of, "let's really know the customer, and let's figure out what the perfect product is." And it just turned out to be a market that didn't materialise to the point that we wanted to continue there. And so when they came in, and we started [and] said, "hey, we do it this way, and we've never done it that way in the laptop market," just because the sheer size and scale of it. So I would say it really is, it's a fresh approach in the laptop Market, which is obviously a very, very big part of our PC business.

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A lot of the focus for Project Athena seems to be on people who are using their laptops for both work and play. Is there any research that's focused more on the commercial heavy uses?

Yeah. We have a lot of commercial research about both what IT decision makers want and what the business end users want. We've been ramping up more of that with the business end users. We also have regular touch points with the CIO and IT decision maker community to really understand what's on their minds.

One of the things that comes up a lot is, "hey, I've got to offer better devices just to compete for the future workforce. I've got offer them devices that meet their lifestyle and expectation." And that's where Project Athena is focused: on that more independent kind of person, who has a small business or entrepreneurial side gig, that thing that's growing like crazy.

But [the research also] hits the same people that are coming into the traditional workforce, and the IT managers have to address their needs. So that's where we see, and as we work with the OEMs between their consumer product lines and their commercial targeted product lines, they see it the same way. It's like there's no reason an HP Elitebook shouldn't have the same goodness as an HP Spectre or a Latitude shouldn't have the same goodness as XPS.

So we see these insights. Now the difference is, we also have our best for business platform in vPro, which addresses the unique manageability and security demands of commercial. So we put that together with Athena, now you have something that's the best for business and then the laptops that are part of the Project Athena program will be the best versions of those.

Are there going to be vPro Project Athena laptops in the future?

Yes.

Are you saying that the research that's more focused on IT decision makers is going into the Project Athena findings as well?

Yeah, it is. I'd say it's a wide net on research we take [where we have to figure out] how do we put these things together? I'd say a lot of the social science and ethnography is focused on individuals, but then we have all these other resources that we put together with what's on the IT decision makers' minds. It turns out that we're finding there's a lot of crossover: what they're learning versus what we're learning.

I covered the last few vPro announcements and noticed some similarities to the goals of Project Athena, like having no compromise between power and performance.

Especially for the most mobile parts of a commercial workforce, they are fundamental needs.

Intel has shared a lot about the specs that OEMs must follow. Is there any discussion about price point? That's obviously an OEM decision at the end.

It is. The way we've said it is, it's premium. Premium can be defined in a few different points. Eight hundred-plus US dollars usually, it varies by country. But it is the premium part of the market to start for sure. And each year, as we innovate what's going to be the best experience with the spec, [we're] really going to be targeting premium, because we don't want to compromise the experience target, right? But at the same time, we expect that the learnings, the ecosystem enabling through the Open Labs, the recipes and tools we'll deliver will actually help the OEMs scale some of that even to their mainstream product lines.

And so if I use Ultrabook as an example, 40 percent of the market went thin and light last year. It was like 45 percent if I remember the numbers. It started in 2011 with Ultrabook when we were just teaching the OEMs and getting the ecosystem on board to do the right thermals and to get the performance into those thin chassis and work on materials and such.

But seven years later, we got to 40 percent of the market. I want it to be faster. So the focus is still premium like Ultrabook was, but then we want the whole purpose of the ecosystem part of the program is that we get it to scale on its own. We teach the ecosystem faster.

Do you expect component prices, especially more specialized parts used in Project Athena laptops, to go down over time?

Absolutely. Great example: new panel technology can be prohibitively expensive, but volume can drive that cost per unit down, right? So when we have a spec, and we have agreement and harmonization on, "there's four of us that want to participate in that panel shape size resolution," that's one of the things Intel can do, we can help that. Having the spec, having a lot of the hardware vendors working on the same kinds of specs toward the same vision should help that scale economy as well.

If this Project Athena approach proves to be the right approach and the OEMs are really happy with the results, do you expect the specs you create to impact designs that include competitor's parts?

History would show yes. A lot of the work we do with the ecosystem does lift the ecosystem. I believe, though, that the work that has to happen to make these designs as good as [they are], when we set the experience bar as high, these KEIs high, it means there's a lot of tuning work that we actually believe only we can do. We just feel really good about that.

Now we'll see. We welcome competition, because it makes us better, but to get there to deliver those KEIs, I believe they'll probably try, because we believe it's compelling. But we believe that there is a lot of Intel uniqueness that only Intel can do, and the OEMs will look to us. If they try, like I said, competition makes us better, so we always welcome that.

To be part of Project Athena, it needs to be using Intel processors, right?

Yeah, the parts of the program where we are providing marketing assistance or telling the stories, of course, that's Core i5, Core i7, they are part of the spec If the OEMs want to do something on their own, that's up to them.

So we're seeing the launch of the first Project Athena laptops for holiday 2019 or sooner?

Sooner. You may see some shortly after Computex. But as far as when we get to that dozen I mentioned for holiday 2019, at least in the consumer channels is where you'll expect to see the first significant assortment.

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How integral is Project Athena to Intel's new laptop push?

Very, so if you saw [the presentation from Intel executive] Chris Walker, he talked about our new platformation strategy, and Project Athena is really the first target, the modern consumer or the mobile go-getter that we defined. So it's taking a platform approach, thinking about [how] our north star is the customer and what they need and what they'll need in the future. That's the new platform approach, and we'll do that in other segments in time as well.

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. And so it is, it's a big year, and we think the laptops that are going to come out of this are going to be very, very compelling. And each year, we're going to keep pushing the value proposition further.

You said you're looking to apply this new platform approach to other segments. Does that mean segments like desktop? What does that mean?

It means if you look at the growth segments that [Intel executive Chris Walker] shared earlier, we've got gaming, we're got commercial. So as we look at those segments, we're also thinking about, how do you apply the platform approach? We actually have a lot of great initiatives. The markets are growing great, but we think this user-centered platform approach is really important for the future. So that's kind of what I mean, but nothing specific to announce yet.

For other segments, will it be called something else?

No comment. Don't know yet.

This article originally appeared at crn.com

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