Intel CEO kicks off IDF with call for social innovation

Barrett pushes developers to come up with tech ideas to improve health care, education.

Intel Chairman Craig Barrett kicked off the highly anticipated Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco Tuesday without focusing on computer chips, new architectures or manufacturing processes.

He left talk about the topics that have made Intel the top player in the microprocessor industry to others to address in keynotes slated for the rest of the week. Instead, Barrett talked about social obligation and what technology and the technologists in the audience could do to impact education, health care and economic development around the world.

"Technology is a tool to address some of the world's most pressing challenges related to health care, education, economic development and the environment," said Barrett, who also chairs a United Nations initiative on technology in the developing world. "No nations or individuals are untouched by these issues. Get involved. Be part of the solution."

To drive home his message, Barrett announced that Intel will award four $100,000 prizes to those who come up with the most innovative ideas for using technology to tackle issues in education, health care, economic development and the environment. The ideas will be judged largely on innovation and sustainability.

"It was a thoughtful piece, focusing on what technology can do rather than focusing on 45-nanometer technology," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at research firm Insight 64, who attended the opening keynote. "Intel will have plenty of opportunity to talk about products and technology. He was trying to raise the level over individual products."

The company uses the annual Intel Developer Forum to provide technologists and users with information on its latest innovations and on the company's technology vision. The conference, which opened today, runs through Thursday.

Barrett had four main lines of focus - driving technological innovation for education, health care, economic development and energy savings in the opening keynote.

Technology, he contended, can help address climate change, as the technology sector accounts for 2% of the global carbon dioxide footprint. He also noted that there are many ways that technology can be used to help cut the remaining 98% of emissions as well. United Parcel Service, for instance, takes advantage of GPS technology and scheduling software to save 3 million miles in deliveries - each month, he noted.

Charles King, an analyst at Pund-IT, said the keynote was interesting but not earthshaking.

"It was certainly crafted to hit some hot button issues," he said. "This is part of a larger recognition and effort by large IT vendors that they need to do more to encourage innovation around the world."

King pointed to Microsoft's Imagine Cup technology innovation competition. He also noted that IBM offers free software tools to businesses in developing markets.

But while Intel may not be the first kid on the block to push innovation that can have a social impact on the world, King said it's a strong message for the conference to open with.

"This was actually a very wise thing for them to do," he added. "What Barrett was really talking about was that technology can no longer be innovative and cool but it needs to have a practical application like health care or energy consumption. It has to make a difference in the way we live and work."