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Ultrabook: Behind How Intel is Remaking Mobile Computing

Figuring Out That Touch Would Become Important

Intel knew going in that Ultrabook would undergo several generations of change, and throughout those generations, the company had to struggle with how much flexibility to leave for OEMs. With too little definition of what an “Ultrabook” was, the term would be meaningless. With too much, OEMs would be constricted and there would be no ability to innovate within the segment.

Ultimately, Intel decided to establish baselines for each generation. For instance, in the first two generations, Intel required a minimum five-hour battery life. With Shark Bay and Haswell, Intel expanded this requirement to six hours during HD video playback and nine hours idling in Windows 8. Similarly, touchscreen functionality didn’t become a baseline Ultrabook requirement until Shark Bay. When the Asus VivoBook became one of the first Ultrabooks to arrive (in mid-2012) with a touchscreen, many (including this author) were dubious of the feature’s utility. It seemed like more of a publicity ploy than a must-have technology…until I tried it.

For sure, my trials with touch in apps like OpenOffice, which depend on tiny buttons and pull-downs, proved that mice and trackpads will stay with us for a long time. But all it took was two minutes of browsing through long webpages and interacting with photo galleries to make the light turn on above my head. Suddenly, I understood why Windows 8 had dual personalities. I still don’t like having two user experiences in two different interface paradigms within a single OS, but it was enough to show me the direction that Intel, Microsoft, and others were trying to take mobile computing.

“We knew that with the rise of all these other devices in the marketplace, with tablets and smartphones, mobile users weren’t saying that they wanted things like touch on their PC just yet,” says Karen Regis. “But we knew that was going to become a pain point sooner rather than later. People expect to have consistent, compelling experiences across all their devices. I hear so many stories about people with kids who are growing up with touch. They touch everything and expect it to respond to them.”

No one wants to stake a major initiative and technology change on a hunch, though. Intel embarked on loads of qualitative and quantitative studies based around touch computing. In one case, Intel gave users touch-enabled laptops for a couple of hours and observed their behavior. Then they did a follow-up study in which users were given touch laptops for 60 days so that they could use them on a daily basis. Researchers wanted to see how user habits changed over time. At the end of the 60 days, according to Regis, “touch still tested extremely high,” both in convertibles and clamshells. “At the end, the people in the control group who didn’t have touch devices were kind of pissed,” she laughs.

“We had a small band of people internally who were very passionate about this opportunity and did the necessary skunk work to get their case lined up,” adds DeLine. “Everybody who heard about touch on a clamshell, their initial reaction was, ‘What the hell are you talking about? You’re going to burden the platform with $60 per BOM and the OEMs aren’t necessarily going to get an ROI off of that. And it’s just going to come out of the hide of other platforms.’ So in some respects, it’s advocating for a feature that competes against our business model. What did the big swing was when we did an internal reference design that had touch on it. Once you’ve got one convert, you get another, and then you’ve got advocacy, and then fairly quickly this became a strategy. Once we decide on a strategy, now we’re putting our balance sheet in play with driving touch and developing an ecosystem for 11” to 14” screen sizes. So there was skepticism, but it was overcome by passion and data and logic.”