The Ultrabook Idea's Thin Beginnings
In 2006, even while laptop sales were tracking on over a decade of growth, Intel knew it had a problem. The level of innovation in notebooks had fallen to nearly stagnant (perhaps ironically, what we're now saying of the desktop). There were bulky mobile workstations. There were ho-hum thin-and-lights. Efforts to craft svelte, exciting mobile platforms had been gathering headlines for years...but not many sales.
Battery life was often insufficient for airplane travel. Processors were underpowered. Designs felt cheap and gimmicky. Really, nothing had shaken up the mobile space since Centrino’s arrival in 2003—a $150 million marketing effort that had ultimately succeeded in eliminating the connectivity wire from laptops.
While notebook sales were great (2007 would be the first year that notebook sales surpassed desktops), the space had become mind-numbingly commoditized, and that meant the only way to increase share was to embark in a rock bottom price war. NPD numbers show the average selling price of Windows notebooks bottoming out at just over $400 in November 2011. Nobody can make money at those levels, Intel included.
Naturally, Intel had a plan. The lasting lesson of Transmeta was that there was a place and a need in the world for low-power processors and the form factors they could enable. In fact, Intel’s first ultra-low voltage (at 1.35 V) chip was a Celeron part in February of 2000. So by 2006, the idea of tailoring silicon to meet form factor needs was far from new. However, old-school Intel was all about saying, “Hey, everybody, look at our new chip. Here are some things you can do with it.” That mindset was vanishing by 2006. The company learned its lesson from Centrino: it’s not the chips that matter; it’s what you do with them.
Said differently, mobility was not about speeds and feeds. It was about experiences. Interestingly, this was (and still is) AMD’s top marketing sentiment for years and years. Intel had taken the time to study how people go about their mobile computing and the sorts of experiences they wanted, and from that emerged what would eventually be the company’s long-term Ultrabook strategy.
Intel was beginning to understand style. Notebooks needed to get much thinner and lighter than they already were. People were willing to trade a few inches of screen size for superior convenience. Processing and storage had to be on par with desktop-class hardware, but everyone wanted battery life to improve considerably.
Intel wasn’t shy about discussing these ideas in the OEM world, and everyone listened. But it was Apple and Apple alone that seemed to grasp the real message. When Steve Jobs showed the first MacBook Air in the beginning of 2008, it ran on an Intel Core 2 Duo “Merom” processor and was billed as the thinnest notebook ever.
It was a small beginning.