Intel's Ultrabook Scheme: Is This The Future of PC Computing?

Years ago, Linux vendors and Pacific Rim hardware maker outsiders made their last ditch effort to revive their flagging fortunes in the PC world and invented a new, super-low-end type of PC called the netbook. Early netbooks were marked—marred, really—by similar low-end specs, including wheezing, low-end CPUs, tiny amounts of flash storage, tiny, barely-usable keyboards, and the inclusion of Linux rather than Windows. Each of these components helped keep costs down and despite the fact that the earliest netbooks were almost unusable, they began selling. So Microsoft swooped in, first with a low-cost version of Windows XP, and then later with Windows 7 Starter. Working with Intel, it crafted higher-end netbook specs that included still-lousy Atom processors, traditional hard drives, and a selection of ports that was more in keeping with traditional Windows laptops.

The results were almost immediate. Netbook sales exploded, Microsoft kicked Linux off the PC for good, and Intel saw a sharp increase in component sales in a market in which it had previously been excluded. Netbooks also branched up and out, with larger models that featured bigger screens, usable, full-sized keyboards, and, eventually, even decent processing power. In fact, netbooks were so successful that they blurred the line between themselves and low-end, traditional laptops. The only thing that remained consistent was that netbooks were, as always, inexpensive.

To industry insiders, netbooks were just the latest example of the Microsoft/Intel duopoly called "Wintel" subsuming a market for their own needs. Remember, the original point of the netbook was to remove these two companies from the equation and make room for other players. But by adopting this market for their own, Microsoft and Intel proved, once again, that it was they, and not any unwanted outsiders, that set the PC agenda.

Game, set, match, right? Not exactly.

Less than two years ago, Apple launched its iPad as a new type of computing device. Physically, the iPad was (still is) just an iPod touch with a 10-inch screen and a very slightly modified user interface. But what a difference that 10 inches of screen makes. What consumers discovered was that most of their computing needs could, in fact, be met by this device, and that the benefits of a true laptop—or netbook—were outweighed by the iPad's size, weight, and convenience, and by the simple joys of its multi-touch interfaces.

With iPads selling for an average of $650, or roughly twice the price of a typical netbook, it would seem that the low-end PCs that could would be in no danger. Besides, many iPad users are simply supplementing their PC usage with the device, so these sales are largely additive, and not cutting into PC sales.

Or maybe not. In its most recent quarterly financial announcement, Intel noted stronger-than-expect PC-based revenues, and in all but one market, the company had outperformed even the most positive of outlooks. But that one net negative market, of course, was the market for netbooks. Customers, it seems, have finally began abandoning the netbook market in droves, and while we might debate where they're going—slightly more expensive laptops that offer dramatically better performance, iPads and other tablets, or some combination of the two—there's no denying that netbooks are now on the downward side of the growth curve. As suddenly as they came and shook things up, netbooks have just as quickly fallen by the wayside.

Intel has an idea for a replacement.

Looked at from Intel's point of view, this replacement, called the Ultrabook, makes plenty of sense. PC users have overwhelmingly indicated that they prefer mobile computers over desktop PCs, so the Ultrabook is a portable computer. Consumers also love Apple products, and that company's Macbook Air line is beautiful, svelte, and drool-worthy, so the Ultrabook will adopt those characteristics as well. And while the netbook was designed to be inexpensive and accessible, it was just a bit too inexpensive to deliver a decent per-unit financial benefit to hardware makers or to Intel. So the Ultrabook is sharply upmarket from the netbook, with machines selling for under $1,000 instead of the typical $300 to $350 for netbooks.

This all makes sense. To Intel. The question is, does this make sense for customers? Do we really need yet another type of PC?

With details vague since the May announcement, we've had to speculate. My own guess was that Ultrabook was basically the PC industry's answer to the Macbook Air and that if you looked at Apple's hardware and imagined PCs like that, you'd arrive at the Ultrabook. Of course, since the Macbook Air starts at $999, and the Ultrabook maxes out at that point, the standard PC vs. Mac economics would apply. But from a hardware perspective, this comparison seemed to make sense.

Very recently, however, Intel began detailing its multi-year plans for the Ultrabook. And while I'm not going to claim I'm suddenly onboard with this new class of PC, I'm at least warming to the idea.

In a blog post last week, Intel media relations manager Becky Emmett said that the microprocessor giant will use the Ultrabook to combine the best of tablet computing with the best of traditional notebook PC computing. That is, Ultrabooks will be used "as a tablet when you want it, a PC when you need it," suggesting that these devices will feature removable screens which house the computing "guts" of the system, a la an iPad. (In today's notebooks, the guts are below the keyboard, and separate from the screen.)

Emmett says this is a "historic change" for the PC industry because "it will impact the physical shape and capabilities of personal computing devices and require substantial changes to the way Intel and its partners design, produce and market devices and their components."

What's interesting is that Intel is plotting its Ultrabook platform years ahead. The first generation Ultrabooks will appear later this year and will utilize current-generation, Ultra-Low Voltage versions of the "Sandy Bridge" Core processors. In the first half of 2012, these chips will be supplanted by a new generation of Core processors, codenamed "Ivy Bridge," which will offer "improved power efficiency, smart visual performance, increased responsiveness and enhanced security," in addition to faster I/O options such as USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt.

The earlier Macbook Air comparison is otherwise apt. Ultrabooks will feature ultra-fast start-up and instant resume from sleep, thin and light designs (and Intel specifically mentions 21 mm thick, which is one third the thickness of the Macbook Air), and battery life of at least 5 hours, with some delivering 8 hours or more for all-day use.

Assuming this all works out as planned, I guess my only issue with the Ultrabook is that it's seen as a new product category. As with the Macbook Air on the Mac side, I want devices like this to simply become the mainstream portable computer platform on the PC side. That is, looking ahead, we won't need both Ultrabooks and traditional notebooks. We'll just need Ultrabooks. You know, assuming this all works out as planned.

Suddenly, this seems like an excellent idea. And when combined with Microsoft's coming Windows 8 OS, which will combine a lush, multi-touch user interface with traditional PC compatibility, the thoughts of another round of the Wintel duopoly start to make sense once more.

Is the Ultrabook the future of PC computing? Or just the old guard's last stand? We'll know soon enough.

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