If the shape and design of a notebook computer can be patented and that patent can, in fact, be enforced, Apple may have been just given a tool that could turn out to be a pain in the neck for PC makers.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has granted Apple the rights to the design of the latest version of Macbook Air, which could easily be argued to be the blueprint for the appearance of an Intel Ultrabook.
The design patent generally describes the thin screen lid and a keyboard element that tapers out to the front of the device. The document also shows the integration of the Air's ports as well as the location and design of its feet, providing room for variation for Ultrabook makers. However, there is no doubt that current Ultrabook designs are very similar to the design in the patent. It will be interesting to see whether Apple will make moves to enforce the rights to at least certain elements of the design and, if it does, we will learn just how much the design of a product that has not changed much in more than 20 years can be protected by a patent. Essentially, the notebook design today is still based on a foldable screen with a keyboard just like the first modern notebooks in the late 1980s. The differences between notebooks and Ultrabooks could be, depending on your view and argument, rather small.
One reason it's important for Apple to hold the design of this patent is the fact that it is an increasingly important product category that is a critical to the evolution of the PC industry. PC makers and Intel, as well as AMD in the not so distant future, have a considerable advantage in that they can exploit the design of ultrathin notebooks borrowing elements from an idea Apple had first. If Apple wanted to be nasty, it probably has a good foundation to at least annoy PC makers. However, then there is Intel with which Apple has a decent relationship. Not only that, but the overlaps between the Macbook Air and the Ultrabook may not be significant: Apple is focusing on the market of $1000 and above, while Intel is looking at the $700 segment and AMD at the $500 market.