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Intel's $1000 Ultrabook: The Dream and The Reality

I would take a bet and say that you aren't crushed about news that Asus and Acer may not be able to sell you an ultrabook for less than a grand in the near future. That is, if you have been waiting for such a computer, bad news but could be completely irrelevant: If you really want an ultrabook, you could simply buy a MacBook Air, which is already available for a dollar below $1000.

Expectations And Reality

I have to admit that I haven't been a big fan of the ultrabook idea since its very first pitch, simply because I don't believe it is a product that deserves the name "ultra" (at least not yet). From what we know so far, an ultrabook is defined by being super slim, super fast (startup and response time) and a decent amount of battery time. It's a matter of your perception if that is enough to justify the description "ultra". I would say, though, that thinner and faster is exactly what we have been getting for the past 15 years - and this pitch is getting a bit long in the tooth.

I have been asking friends what they would expect from an ultrabook for several weeks now. The best response so far was "something that is beyond 'better'", meaning that "ultra" is not just one step into the future, but at least two. When compared to the actual device pitch of an ultrabook, most people I talked to were disappointed as they expected something different than what they have today. They expect a notebook (a notebook, not a tablet or hybrid device) that is decidedly better than the notebook they use and know today. I am not a market researcher, but I believe the name ultrabook carries a substantial risk to disappoint consumers if it is simply a copy of the MacBook Air.

Cost: Does it Matter?

We will read quite a bit about Apple's ability to already sell ultrabooks for less than $1000 today, while other manufacturers cannot. The answer is likely somewhere between Apple's ability to dictate hardware prices in the supply chain, its capability to design computer systems incredibly well and the fact that it may have planned its systems for a much longer time than Acer, Asus and others have. However, I would question the significance of a $999 price point and would argue that you would buy an ultrabook for $1099 or $1299 just as well, if it carries the value to back it up.

What we don't need at this time is another notebook that is simply thinner and lighter. If I am shopping for a workhorse notebook today, I am aiming for a $600 price tag, simply because I believe that such a device is good enough. Quite frankly, a $600 device will do most of the work I need to do just as well as a system that costs $1200 or $1500. I don't think I am alone with that opinion: I consider my work computer as a commodity product that should be as affordable as possible. However, that does not mean that I would not spend more money, if there was a reason to do so. If a $1200 or $1500 notebook was not only much more portable and faster, but also offers significantly different features that make my life a lot easier, I would have no problem making the extra stretch.

When the ultrabook was announced, representatives from Intel told me that they are considering the ultrabook as an innovation platform - a platform that is merely the foundation for what they hope vendors are coming up with, especially in the way users interact with their ultrabooks.

Thinner and faster notebooks aren't innovative enough to justify a $1000+ price tag. However, if, for example, a vendor could finally make audio input work with 100% accuracy or if a vendor could bridge the gap between tablets and notebooks without forcing the user to make unreasonable compromises, then I'd bet that there would be many buyers who could be willing to pay $1200 and more for such a notebook.

Adjusted Reality: The PC Distortion Field

PC vendors will have to take risks to find out what features could be compelling enough to reach a $1200 - $1500 price tag. One feature they are almost always missing is design and general appeal. Where the Mac succeeds, the PC usually fails. I am still astonished that there is no major PC maker that is challenging Apple with a PC design that could be considered being unique and equally attractive as Apple's notebooks. Sure, some have tried and may have come close occasionally, but if we are honest, it's Apple that sets the benchmark for industrial design especially for portable computing devices.

Could the PC industry also create Windows PCs that are as attractive as Apple devices and offer them in a way that you would be willing to wait in line for it? Could the PC industry adjust the expectation for a new type of (Windows) computing device and create a reality distortion field that would surround a product with the appeal that is necessary to create an actual form of consumer excitement for a new PC?

Of course, it can - as soon the PC industry is dropping the goal of building the best Apple product copies and as soon as it is finding its way back to create desirable products that take innovative risks. Any computer vendor today should be aiming for a product people are willing to line up for. Anything less will be just another forgettable computer design.

The Dream: Ultrabook

I don't think that missing the $999 price tag is a big deal. Missing the promise and opportunity of the implication of the "ultrabook" could have far greater implications. There is a good chance that marketing has over-promised what the first ultrabooks will really be, but the category name still offers a tremendous reward for the vendor who can deliver on the promise and deliver an ultra-product that differentiates itself not just by its form factor, but by its overall package that delivers a vastly better computing experience that the notebooks we have today. A simply thinner and slightly faster notebook won't cut it.