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Intel's Calculated Gamble

Ultrabook: Behind How Intel is Remaking Mobile Computing

Prior to 2011, had anyone asked for gesture- and voice-based computing on notebooks? No one that I know of. Yet here it is, and one has at least to admire the audacity, right or wrong, required by Intel to push such functionality at a public wholly unused to such functionality in this device class. The decision was informed, but it’s by no means a sure bet.

“When we did Centrino, we based its definition on extensive mobile user research,” notes Karen Regis. “Yet there wasn’t anything in our research that said specifically that users want wireless capability in their notebooks, right? It’s drawing out the insights. We knew that people want freedom and flexibility, and we knew that wireless, while a heavy lift, would provide that freedom and flexibility in ways that mobile users hadn’t yet imagined. We knew wireless could fundamentally change the way that people interacted with their laptop PCs—and it did.”

Guessing what people will want before they know they want it and pushing it to be the de facto standard in the industry. Sound familiar? It sure has that Steve Jobs ring to it.

“We think that this new wave of ways to interact with your technology is going to make how we are working with PCs today seem really old fashion really fast,” adds Regis. “Touch and gesture specifically make a lot of sense to start with all-in-one designs. People might be in the kitchen or your hands might be dirty. You need to adjust something on-screen, but you don’t want to touch anything. Voice and gesture could play there. Voice on an Ultrabook makes absolute sense to us. We are going to enable all of this capability across our whole product line.”

If the first half of the Ultrabook effort was about form factor, the second is about sensor-driven functionality. Intel holds my dream of near-perfect speech recognition in its sights and is working with Dell on a pilot based on a revamped Dragon engine, but don’t expect to hear a lot of noise around this. Intel is taking things slowly and cautiously, because, in a way, Ultrabook is a make or break deal.

For a couple of years starting in 2003, AMD handed Intel a stunning reversal of fortunes in the server market when Opteron debuted with an indisputably superior architecture. It took two to three years for Intel to recover and retake its lead. Today, the situation with client devices is highly analogous. Apple, Qualcomm, ARM, and all of the other ultramobile heavyweights quickly and quietly brushed netbooks off the map and bifurcated personal computing into two modes: consumption and production. Seemingly while the company slept, Intel lost its grip on the consumption side of the consumer market.

Ultrabook is in part a push to reenergize the laptop market. It needed it, no argument. Of course, that will help Intel sell more mobile CPUs. But that’s the small picture. The big picture is that Intel must win with Ultrabook in order to reunite those consumption and production halves of the market and halt the landslide of mobile market share tumbling toward non-Intel consumption devices. Ultrabook aims to make its platform so compelling that, frankly, you’d be a fool to consider an under-performing, over-priced, feature-limited high-end tablet.

That day is not today. It probably won’t even arrive by December. But if I was a betting man, I’d put my money on sometime in 2015. By then, the right hardware will have been integrated, economies of scale will have sunk in, and developers will have exploited the new capabilities in thousands of mind-blowing ways.

“Is it a slam dunk?” laughs Rob DeLine. “No, I’m not George Tenet telling George Bush that it was a slam dunk to go into Iraq. Nothing like that. But normally, Intel would do a technology development and then just throw it out there and hope that the horizontal ecosystem would pick it up. Or we would say that it needs to be on 300 platforms on the day of launch, every local language supported, and...nothing happens. We’re taking a fundamentally different approach with this that gives it a much, much higher probability of success. But we have to take the right steps so that, when we look back 24 months from now, we will have had the right journey.”

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