Intel’s Compute Card could transform the world of smart devices

It's the first modular computing platform that has a shot at succeeding.

It doesn't take too long before your typical "smart" gadget becomes dumb. After a few years, the hardware inside your TV or connected refrigerator will be hopelessly out of date. And if you want to upgrade, your only choice right now is to buy a whole new device. Intel is hoping to change that with the Compute Card, a credit card-size device that packs in all of the hardware -- a processor, memory, storage and networking capabilities -- needed to make any device smart.

I got my first glimpse at the Compute Card in action at Computex today, and while the demos are still pretty rough, they were certainly intriguing. There's a definite need for a modular computing platform like this, after all. The current approach to smart devices -- that is, making them built for obsolescence -- can only last for so long before consumers revolt. And it goes beyond today's wares: The Compute Card could also pave the way for an entirely new approach to connecting everything.

"[It's] about bringing computing to new types of devices, not about replacing traditional ones," Intel's Bruce Patterson said during a briefing with reporters.

After testing out Intel's Compute Stick and flagship NUC (its family of miniature desktop replacements), I didn't expect to be wowed by the Compute Card. Still, it was smaller and thinner than I anticipated, about the size of a typical mobile-battery pack. Under the hood, the card packs in either Celeron or Pentium processors with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage; or seventh-generation Core m3 or i5 processors with 128GB of storage. Intel expects them to retail between $140 and around $450, depending on the model you choose.

I was more impressed by the ways manufacturers are already experimenting with the Compute Card. LG, for example, has a large display that turns into an all-in-one PC when you drop it in; Seneca is using it to power a digital media player; and Sharp has embedded it in an intelligent display. Intel also created a dock for Compute Cards that functions similarly to its NUC devices -- it's basically a modular desktop replacement.

Foxconn, the company that actually builds devices for the likes of Apple and Dell, also had a few intriguing mockups to show off. There was the expected, like a thin convertible laptop powered by the card. And then there was something completely surprising: a monitor stand that turns into an all-in-one PC when you plug in the card and add any display. It's the sort of thing that wouldn't have made much sense before the availability of a modular computing platform. But now, it's something that I imagine plenty of consumers would be interested in.

When it comes to the education market, the Compute Card could be used in an inexpensive, Chromebook-like laptop. That could make it easier on schools when kids inevitably break their computer shells, as well as for when they need to upgrade their fleet of computers. Intel also brought up the possibility of having students move the Compute Card from their laptop to a smart screen in the classroom, or bringing it to a more capable laptop shell at home to continue their work.

Of course, Intel faces plenty of pitfalls with the Compute Card. Its viability as an entirely new computing platform depends on manufacturer adoption, for one. While the company has the likes of Dell, HP and Foxconn aboard, it's hard to judge how enthusiastic they really are about the Compute Card until we start seeing their devices ship. Intel also has to remain committed to supporting the existing card platform for several years. At this point, Intel says it's planning to keep this version of the platform going for a decade, but that could easily change at a whim.

Intel admits it's more difficult for device makers to integrate Compute Card than existing methods. But that should change as they gain more experience. And Intel's Patterson also noted: "Once ODM (original device maker) partners get it down, everyone will be able to do it."

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