The Ultrabook, Part 2: It's Not What You Think It Is
I have to admit that that the only other new product category that I have found to be more puzzling than Intel's ultrabook idea has been Origami, commonly referred to as the UMPC, half a decade ago.
The UMPC was more marketing product than a flushed out mobile PC that made consumer sense. The ultrabook shows similar symptoms and there is a good chance that this term will fade away just like the UMPC or the MID did. So I spent some time with Intel to find out what the plan is. Here is part 2 of my quest of understanding what the ultrabook may be (read part 1 here).
If there is anything that I learned from my discussion with Intel's Greg Welch, director for ultrabook marketing, then it is that I can feel more confident that we aren't stuck with the conviction that the PC has to be dead just because Apple is selling millions of iPads.
The Purpose: Ditch The Compromise
Let's just be frank and admit that the ultrabook is a notebook with a dressed up name for now. It is supposed to be thinner than anything else you have seen in a notebook to date. It can't be as thin as a tablet, but it will deliver the utility of a traditional notebook and provide far more universal usability as well as battery life than today's notebooks.
While the form factor of the ultrabook clearly goes after the tablet and will attempt to claim some of the iPad excitement, those new notebooks will remain foremost content creation devices, which is a good thing, but this may also be a curse that will prevent Intel and ultrabook builders to shed the perception of being stuck in a stone age product strategy.
Tablets are generally considered as "lean-back" products as you are consuming content with them, while notebooks are described as "lean-forward" products that are far less convenient to use in a passive content consumption scenario, but are superior when you actively create content: The PC will always be the much more powerful and flexible tool when you want to engage in a digital activity and when you want to be creative. It is the single most critical advantage the PC has over the tablet and Intel is trying to convey this message.
The ultrabook is pitched as an outline and that will resemble the size of a tablet, but keep the talents of a PC. Will it be enough? No. And guess what? Intel knows it’s not enough.
PC versus tablet market
The question how big the tablet market really is has been by far the most interesting and controversial discussion areas I have experienced in my 15-year career. It is an almost surreal space you enter once you start discussing and questioning the tablet market. No one will deny today that there is doubt whether this market actually exists, yet every major IT company is going after it.
I could not resist asking Welch this question as well. It is clear that the question "is there a tablet market?" is a tricky one and you won't get a direct answer - not from a marketing director and not from a CEO. My impression is that the industry simply does not know the answer, and serious doubt has been infused by Android tablets that have failed one by one.
Welch told me that Intel is aware that general market forecast numbers for tablet sales have been off, but noted that Intel is still going after the notebook as well as the tablet market. There is little doubt about the existence of the notebook market, but Intel is not going after the tablet market because it has a opportunity right before its eyes: Intel is going after the tablet market, because it "can't afford to miss out" if the tablet in fact will take off. "Gladly Intel has the resources to develop products for both markets simultaneously," he said.
You can interpret this message in many ways. I feel that this "just in case" strategy already accepts potential failure of the tablet market and, from Intel's perspective, this may not be such a bad thing. Notebook processors are more expensive, more capable and provide more engineering space than a tablet chip: Plus, if the tablet generally failed, Intel could easily get rid of the pain in the rear ARM has turned out to be. There may even be the opportunity to convert Apple to adopt x86 tablet processors.
Intel's best shot is, no matter how excited we are about tablets, the reinvented notebook.
Relighting the fire
Interestingly, Welch agreed that the concerns that I expressed in the first article of this series were generally accurate. Thin and light is not enough. More performance isn't enough, especially since the perception of performance is actually shifting from top-end speed to acceleration: Consumers apparently refer to performance in a modern notebook and rally mean responsiveness. Consumers value an instant-on capability much more than ever before. Welch also noted that security concerns need to be addressed - and ultrabooks need features that allow its users to wipe data remotely, at will and when needed. These are all great ideas, but I don't believe that they will inject that kind of excitement that is compelling enough to make you wait in line for hours for the privilege to be the first user of an ultrabook. Yet it is this excitement Intel needs to relight the fire for the common notebook.
As it stands, the ultrabook can be generally criticized as something we already have - a PC version of the Macbook Air. The fact is that hardware will take Intel and PC makers only so far. Welch agreed that PC makers will have to play a platform game to be successful and they may have to think outside the box to create what the name "ultrabook" suggests: Intel merely provides the shell PC makers can use to innovate in. Intel hopes that this shell is enough to inspire PC makers to take the notebook beyond what we believe a notebook can be today.
In some way, the ultrabook is similar to the 2006 UMPC story, and very different from the 2008 netbook pitch. There is a general idea what an ultrabook can be, but it is a very loose definition. The UMPC had a similarly blurry definition and quickly vanished. The netbook on the other hand had a very narrow definition and succeeded for some time, but eventually failed as the idea got old and there was virtually no innovation in this space. Common sense would suggest that Intel needs to exactly define the ultrabook and learn from the netbook experience: Give a clear guideline what an ultrabook has to be and keep evolving this idea inside Intel.
The spark for innovation needs to take place at the core and Intel needs to realize that it will need to take a much more active role in helping PC makers to reinvent the notebook.