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Renee J. James
Renee James Courtesy: Intel

The world of wearables, according to Intel

Sep 10, 2014

While Apple was announcing its long-awaited smartwatch (and two updated smartphones), chipmaker Intel was unveiling its own vision for the future of wearables up the Peninsula at San Francisco's Moscone Center. The Santa Clara, Calif.-based semiconductor company, which has long been criticized for being late to the mobile market, is determined to turn the tide and lead in this fledgling product category.

To that end, Intel announced several new offerings at its annual developer forum on Tuesday morning, including an updated "board" developers can use to build all sorts of wearable devices. Called Edison, the postage stamp-sized product features a dual-core system-on-a-chip, Wi-Fi, memory, support for USB and more. The company also announced an "analytics for wearables" program that will provide data-driven intelligence to developers building wearables using its platform.

Intel's still trying to drive demand for new PCs, and has set an ambitious target of getting its chips in 40 million tablets by end of this year. But it's definitely made it clear that it's angling for the wearables--and larger "internet of things"--market. (To show just how fancy wearables can get, Intel recently unveiled a high-end, bejeweled smart bracelet at New York Fashion Week). Company president Renee James has her own take on where wearables are going--post Apple smartwatch. Fortune caught up with James to find out more about her company's vision for the newish market, the competition and what needs to happen for wearables to really take off.

Fortune: Wearables were a big topic at last year's event. Is it still a big topic?

James: It’s a big deal today but it’s more real today. We’re on the second generation of everything we announced last year, but today what we talked about is the software developer kits. So basically you can get a hardware board, a full software development kit tools and actually build stuff easily and quickly. So what I would say is one year later, everyone’s like, ok, it’s real. They’re on their second rev of the developer board—Edison and they’ve got a full kit. Cause developers just want to know how to hook software to it and build stuff. This conference is all about software developer kits that make it easy to work on Intel platforms. So we announced a kit for internet of things, we announced for wearables and one for high performance computing.

On the wearables side are you competing with Samsung now, since they recently launched their own platform?

Samsung has a product and they are attracting developers to their platform. So they’re more about getting developers to actually write apps, because most of the apps for that device are actually Samsung-written today. They want to extend it to become the de facto standard open interface for everyone. We’re about getting all the people who want to compete with Samsung to be able to build devices. So we’re kind of down at the guts level saying, hey, we can give you the hardware, the sensor platform, the software you need to go build your own one. So our point of view on it is we’re more generic. We’re about enabling the masses to be able to do the kinds of things that Samsung’s doing for their own products.

They seem to say they’re taking a much more open approach and want even other manufacturers to use it.

I think that’s what they want but I don’t know if other people will do it. So Apple will do what Apple is doing, which apparently they announced a moment ago. I don’t know if people will go Samsung’s route but it’s the right objective.

I know Intel is somewhat agnostic on the actual products, but what do you think is going to really take off on the wearables side?

In my experience in this industry the things that have been breakthrough have all been about connecting human beings to each other, communicating with each other. Do I really care about my heart rate all the time? But the fact I can get my text messages without looking at my phone. There’s others in the world that I’ve seen that have private display on the inside, and there’s some that have haptics (technology that uses the sense of touch like vibrations, for example). If you can make it so that I could touch somebody remotely through a wearable because it has haptic feedback—like I could give a hug and it would touch you or pinch you—that would be killer. People want to chitchat, they talk, they text. I think that’s it. I think that they don’t do anything that your phone can’t do yet and they need to do something more, not only be more stylish.

(Interview was edited for length and clarity)

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