In his speech last week at CES, Intel's Paul Otellini did what many big tech CEOs do more and more often at such big gatherings of press and partners--he projected a "vision" of consumer technology's future, one in which Intel plays a huge part. It's one that most anyone sitting down to look at the past few years of the market's progress could outline as well: more powerful, more connected devices packed into smaller wrappers, bringing us ubiquitous access to the Internet and real-time information everywhere. And, of course, this revolution has Intel inside.

This speech could have been given last year, or five years ago. Nothing in it, bar some names of standards, was particularly unforeseen then. But Otellini's "vision thing" is important to reassure partners in the direction of the biggest players' bets, and has value in that it also telegraphs to consumers where things may be headed. One difference this year is that we can actually see an important change happening in the literal growth of smartphones in size and complexity and the shrinkage of laptops to a point where these two product classes are converging. The remaining space between the two is a sweet spot that needs to be filled. Consumers bought more laptops than desktops in the US in the month of November, according to data gathered by equipment company Belkin. The iPhone is punching well above its numerical weight in terms of driving traffic to major Web properties such as Google and Yahoo!. All eyes are on Macworld, and anticipation focuses on whether Apple will fill this sweet spot with an ultralight computer. It probably won't, but if it did, it wouldn't be a shot in the dark, but a logical evolutionary linkage.

Otellini says Intel has roadmapped the future of the processors it produces about five generations forward, which he says covers the next 10 years of development. This, he says, requires enormous faith in the future direction of the market, making Intel more like a pharmaceutical company, as it can drive market demand simply by making something possible. Consumers are beginning to catch up and in some cases drive this demand, instead of simply being on the receiving end of technology which they then must find a need for in their lives. This is a critical changepoint that bears noting. The important point is not what Otellini said about the personal 'net and what it may do for us. The important point is that most average consumers can now imagine it more easily. The speech may have been the same, but the context is different.

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