Ultrabooks: Strategic vision or just a pretty face?
1/10/2012 6:46 PM EST
Intel Corp.'s new form factor for notebook PCs, the Ultrabook, is the talk of the Las Vegas town at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), wowing conference attendees with MacBook Air-alikes from a plethora of PC vendors. While some see Intel's initiative as largely cosmetic, however, others see the move as a strategic vision promising to become much more than just a pretty face for PC.
The market for notebooks has, over the past couple of years, started to stagnate somewhat, as tablets and smartphones rise to ever higher computing heights, bringing more performance and lower power to form factors designed to fit in people's pockets.
The humble notebook PC hasn't seen much in the way of major innovation lately, as mobile devices grab all the headlines and touch screen their way into people's hearts. That does not, however, necessarily mean the time for PCs has passed.
Indeed, even as the buzz around mobile grows, people still struggle to transform their shiny new handhelds into true productivity devices, and this is where the PC still has room to shine—as a predominant platform for both business users and consumers.
To win back its rightful place at the top of the personal computing food-chain, however, the notebook ecosystem—spearheaded by Intel, which remains largely irrelevant in mobile—has come to the realization that it needs to undergo a makeover. Like Madonna did in music, Intel must do in computing, re-inventing the product to suit a new generation, accustomed to thinner, lighter, faster, tactile devices.
Thus, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, seems to be Intel's strategy with Ultrabooks, a name it has patented and is allowed for use only by vendors meeting the Intel-defined minimum specs, including, of course, Intel processors. Neither AMD nor ARM will be able to use Ultrabook branding, making the success or failure of the strategy Intel's and Intel's alone.
Last year Intel launched a $300 million fund to promote the development of technologies for Ultrabooks, and research firm IHS iSuppli has predicted that Ultrabook shipments will be 136.5 million in 2015, up from less than 1 million expected this year, which sounds encouraging enough.
But is making thinner, lighter, more power efficient, prettier laptops going to stimulate massive consumer demand, though? Is it enough?
"If Ultrabooks are only thin light MacBook Air knockoffs, they won't be very successful. They need to be more," said analyst Jack Gold of Gold associates.
Certainly, said Gold, thin and light are important factors, and price—with Intel aiming at the sub $1000 market—is always an issue. But Ultrabooks need something special if they are to be a true blue success.
Gold believes Ultrabooks will undergo some significant changes over the next couple of years, and that these changes will be the catalyst for a PC notebook revival which could capture 15-20 percent of the notebook market by 2014-2015.
For a start, the next generation Core chips from Intel—IvyBridge, due out later this year—should allow Ultrabooks to finally achieve eight to 10 hours of battery life even in the reduced form factor, which necessitates a smaller battery.
They will also be optimized for "instant-on," typically defined as a boot-up in less than 10 seconds from sleep mode. When this happens, it will solve one of the biggest complaints PC users have had for years, and even the playing field with tablets.
Intel's acquisition of Macafee will also result in enhanced security capabilities for Ultrabooks, Gold predicted, giving the notebooks better protection from malware attacks.
Last, but not least, Gold believes the integration of touch interfaces and touch enhanced form factors for Ultrabooks will also emerge, allowing users to interact with devices in a more natural way.
Microsoft's upcoming Windows 8 operating system will have a large part to play in future Ultrabook functionality, and with the OS still somewhat under wraps, one can't accurately predict what functions will and will not be possible.
One can speculate that Intel plans to make much of Microsoft's Metro UI, as well as Win 8's purported enhanced boot and recover from standby capability, as well as develop specialized functions and drivers for the new Ultrabooks.
Success, however, will also be dependent on Ultrabook OEMs really differentiating their products, and targeting specific consumer classes with different models, for example, productivity centric Ultrabooks for business users, smaller but powerful Ultrabooks for portable gamers, media creating and consumption Ultrabooks for the YouTube generation and more.
Thus, while a number of first generation Ultrabooks are being announced at CES, analysts believe the "real" Ultrabooks will emerge later in 2012, with new chips, a new OS and new user functionality and performance.
"That is when the true value of the Ultrabook devices will be judged," said Gold, predicting a number of lower-end Ultrabooks would come to market at $400-$500 (or less) by the end of 2012.
"We further expect to see a variety of uniquely derived form factors," Gold noted, including some with tablet-like flip over, extended screens, connectivity (media) options, etc.
Only once that future generation of Ultrabooks emerges will the platform be able to come into its own, and not be seen as simply a MacBook knock-off.