Intel Ultrabook: Right Time, Wrong Product
Perhaps it is just me, but I find Intel's ultrabook pitch somewhat confusing. Is this an evolution of the notebook, is it a replacement for the netbook or is it a targeted alternative to tablets?
I have to admit that I am writing this article from a distance and I don't know much more than you do, if you have read those reports coming out of Computex in Taiwan. I am talking about ultrabooks, which are defined by Intel as a new mainstream notebook, but seems to be generally seen by media as a netbook replacement - or at least as a product category that is created to soften the fall of the netbook.
Intel says the ultrabook is a new class of a computer, which will be less than 0.8 inches thick and cost less than $1000. It may be a slight exaggeration to call a thinner notebook a new class of a computer, but there is some hardware horsepower behind these devices that will come out with Ivy Bridge in 2012 (the first ultrabooks may be unveiled with Sandy Bridge) and feature 22 nm processors as well as a chipset that will combine Thunderbolt and USB 3.0. The 2013 Haswell may enable notebook makers to actually build what Intel has in mind with the ultrabook and reduce the power consumption of today's notebooks by 50%.
The ultrabook certainly hits the core of the mobile computing market and Intel expects that 40% of all notebooks sold in 2012 will be ultrabooks. However, I can't help but be disappointed by the vision behind these devices. For as long as we have had a serious effort behind mainstream and performance notebooks, which really started in 1996 when Intel began putting Pentium MMX processors into ridiculously expensive and heavy notebooks, it has always been about thinner, lighter and more battery. As excited as Intel may be about this new name, I am wondering how excited the market can be, if it is told that there will be thinner notebooks for less than $1000?
The more I thought about "ultrabooks", the more I was convinced that Intel may be screwing itself with this new "category" name. I made a few phone calls and asked friends what computer they would envision if someone told them about the purchase of an ultrabook. There were two general answers - one that went in the direction into a subnotebook that is "much smaller than a netbook" and one that was going toward a luxury notebook with "super fast" performance. No answer was even close to Intel's definition and none suggested a "mainstream notebook class". It was particularly interesting to notice that those 10 people I called had no immediate idea what an ultrabook could be. The definition of "ultra", by the way, as given by dictionary.com, is: Going beyond what is usual or ordinary; excessive; extreme. You tell me what is extreme about a thin mainstream notebook.
Given the implications of the iPad, which I still believe is an Apple-specific product with little opportunity for a general tablet market, aren't we are ready for a much more risky product and a step that truly changes the way we interface with computers? Is a simply thinner notebook enough or should we think about those interface technologies that have been invented and matured over the past years? You can't tell me that touch screens do not work in an evolved notebook in some way and I just don't buy that the general form factor of a notebook, half keyboard and half screen, will stay with us forever. Is there any PC company that is willing to make a bold step forward? Granted, Intel has only limited influence on PC designs and Intel's own design effort have not been exactly successful, but where is the innovation that would lead us beyond the iPad - and to a true ultrabook? Do we have to wait for Apple to make that move?
Intel also showed prototype tablets and MeeGo netbooks based on its Atom processors and Atom SoCs. There is a considerable effort inside Intel to ramp up its presence especially in the tablet space, but it is not a secret that the general enthusiasm for netbooks is much more subdued than it was a few months ago and the flops of the Samsung Galaxy Tab, the Motorola Xoom and the Blackberry Playbook ("flops" would refer to a failure to achieve sales numbers that could be seen by Apple as threat to the iPad) have caused the PC industry to review its tablet approach. We may actually find that the future of the PC tablet is not an iPad copycat, but an evolutionary stage that combines traditional PC talents with the most recent progress made in interface technology. The ultrabook may be the right name for such a product, but what Intel describes as an ultrabook is not what I would be looking for in an ultrabook. If the ultrabook will be what Intel says it will be, then it will simply be another thin & light notebook and (sorry) a waste of a great name for the next generation of mobile computers.
Am I too harsh? Possibly. But I feel that we have had our fair share of netbook form factors that lacked actual innovation in the 7- to 10-inch segment and thinner and lighter notebooks is just what we expect anyway. If I was really mean, I could say that the Intel ultrabook class is already a step behind Apple's Macbook Air design, which undercuts the Intel reference idea with a maximum height of just 0.68 inches. In that view, the prefix "ultra" is generally used in the sense of implying a state well beyond what we perceive to be normal. The problem is that an ultrabook will be just a newer, but "normal" notebook. A sub-$1000 price point is also not too encouraging for these mainstream ultrabooks, as we would be truly looking for sub-$700 prices in this category.
Intel repeated in Taiwan its intention to accelerate the Atom processor roadmap. History shows that once Intel got its strategy in order and lined up its R&D armies, it became incredibly strong and eventually beat its competition. With its manufacturing power backing its processor development, we should be seeing a fierce processor war with ARM and strong innovation. Oak Trail certainly isn't the Atom chip that will win the championship for Intel and the upcoming Cedar Trail may only be a warning shot for ARM, while the 22 nm chip generation should reveal a much more competitive Intel and a strong case why Intel chips are an option for tablet makers, especially if Intel can merge the chip family with the Core family and share certain features between the two families. The resulting product category could have been an ultrabook - much more than the described ultrabook today.
Ultrabook sounds right for the time and an "ultra" book would be exactly what PC makers need to relight the passion for mobile PCs. I would envision ultrabooks to be affordable touch screen computers with typical PC characteristics such as a compact physical keyboard and a software ecosystem built around it. Back in 2007, when Intel heavily defended the future of the UMPC (ultra mobile PC) and I questioned the future not just of the UMPC, but also its hope to establish the MID (mobile Internet Device) as a mass market device, I wondered whether someone should ask Apple for help to design the MID. I would ask the same question today again. Should we ask Apple for help to create an ultrabook?