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Intel’s dilemma: Whose problem do Ultrabooks solve?

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If one could earn an “A” for effort, I’d have to award it to Intel(s intc). The company’s CES press event on Monday morning was an outstanding and entertaining presentation. Ultrabooks were the focus, but even as I left the 45-minute event, I felt there was plenty of sizzle and not enough steak.

Mooly Eden, the Intel VP and general manager of the PC Client Group, was a one-man show, not only touting the many successes of Intel’s Sandy Bridge computing platform — 150 million such chips sold — but also demonstrating the latest Ultrabook technology. These small notebooks, around 18 millimeters thin (or less) offer what people want, according to Intel: great experiences in a small package.

Eden took a small jab at the tablet market where Apple’s iPad(s aapl) has the lion’s share of the market, and Intel is barely in the game. He mentioned that content consumption isn’t enough for these devices. “Consumption is good for cows. We are humans,” Eden said as he launched a demonstration of ArcSoft software for photo album creation. On the surface, the demo was about the Ultrabook experience, but you didn’t have to look deep for the traditional Intel message of speed and power.

Ultimately, the problem that keeps coming back to me is that Intel’s focus is on experiences already met by non-Intel devices. For example, the six main “experiences” Intel says Ultrabooks deliver are: Creation to Express; Not Needing to Wait; Unwired; Peace of Mind; Reflection of Me; and At a Price That Works.

I’d argue smartphones and tablets currently meet most, if not all of those needs; therein lies the problem for Ultrabooks. It’s not a consumer problem; it’s an Intel problem, as sales of traditional computers are declining, while sales of tablets and smartphones are rising.

Short of being powerful, portable laptops, there’s no new “experience” to be had here. Intel is even challenged on the final of its six target experiences, because it knows these devices need to come down in price. Eden suggested that when the partner ecosystem reaches economies of scale, Ultrabook prices would come down to mainstream price points. With 75 expected Ultrabook models due out this year, I hope those prices drop quickly.

Even as the current crop of Ultrabooks arrives though, Intel is looking ahead. So what’s the future for Ultrabooks? Thanks to the Ivy Bridge chip power, look for gesture-based computing, interaction between devices, and better voice recognition with help from Nuance(s nuan). Impressive as these were, they aren’t new ideas, and for now, they’re concepts for Intel.

Speaking of old ideas, Eden was excited about Ultrabooks with touch displays. Haven’t we seen these for several years? They haven’t sold before in mass numbers, and they’re unlikely to sell again for two reasons. The ergonomics of such “reach out and touch” activities makes no sense for most standard computing activities, and this technology will add a price premium that will reduce demand.

Still, one concept really captured my attention. Intel showed off an Ultrabook that has a transparent area where the trackpad would normally reside on a laptop. It’s touch sensitive, so it can be used as a giant trackpad, but it has palm-rejection so as not to interfere with typing. Most impressive, however, was that the see-through area can show information when the laptop is closed.

Aside from displaying appointments, emails and such, a user could interact with this data without opening the laptop. I think this is clever, but it also says something about Intel’s lack of ability to enter the smartphone market. Why? Because the company is trying to move traditional smartphone activities — email, notifications, calendar events — to the laptop. Eden even said this was “so you don’t have to pull a smartphone out of your pocket.”

Even with that unique, forward-thinking demonstration, however, it still seems to me like Intel is trying too hard to invent something that’s just the natural evolution of laptops. In turn, its branding of Ultrabooks is more about solving Intel’s problem — less reliance on it as devices embrace ARM(s armh) chips — than solving a consumer problem.

30 Responses to “Intel’s dilemma: Whose problem do Ultrabooks solve?”

  1. Shameer Mulji

    The problem that ultrabooks solve is for those that need a light, powerful notebook that can run legacy applications. Generally, they consist of the following users;

    1. Business professionals
    2. Creative Professionals
    3. Students

    MS is THE number one used application today, used by hundreds of millions of business users and students worldwide. Also Photoshop, Premier, Final Cut Pro 7, Avid, etc. are some of the major apps used by creative professionals. People that rely on these apps on a regular basis won’t be using a tablet as their primary computing device. They need access to a legacy environment. An ultrabook running Win7 or Win8 will have the best of having access to the legacy desktop plus the new Metro-environment. Until these major apps get re-written as a native Metro, iOS, Android app, I don’t see these users relying on a tablet for their main PC, not anytime soon, maybe some day in the future…Maybe.

    For those users that have no reliance on legacy apps, I definitely agree that a smartphone & tablet will fill their needs completely. It’s these users that Intel is afraid because a tablet running on ARM processors will be enough for them.

    Tens of millions of business & creative professionals still rely on legacy software (MS Office, Photoshop, Premier, LOB apps, etc.). These users are not going to use a tablet to do all their main work

    • gorgeousninja

      while i agree that millions use MS Office everyday. The number that NEED to use Photoshop/Avid on a daily basis is not going to be that high. \the popularity of both the iPad and the Macbook Air shows that Intel’s strengths of raw power are only appealing to the teenboys now. Intel have realized this and are hoping that they arent too late.

  2. Nine Yarder

    I’m sitting here at the dinner table while the meal is cooking, typing on a MacBook Pro. Within reach are two iPhone 4S’, and an iPad. The MB is best for web browsing while sitting at the table, but I just checked the weather forecast on my iPhone, which is also running a timer for the stew on the stove and streaming music via AirPlay to the Apple TV/stereo. I just took a picture of the dog with the iPhone and texted it to my daughter. My wife is reading the NYTimes news on the iPad. Meanwhile, when the thought strikes me, I’ll click on the Parallels app running Win7 on my MB and enter some lines of code into MS Visual Studio for the database app I’m working on. I do a lot of my software development at the kitchen table.

    I just don’t see one device, e.g. an Ultrabook or MB Air, being as convenient as having a mix of devices handy which are better suited for specific use.

  3. Peter Panis

    Typical wrongheaded thinking that tries to say, “Let’s try to convince the consumer that there is a niche that fits our product.” rather than saying, “Let’s make a product that fits an existing niche.”

  4. Chuck Dick

    “Eden even said this was “so you don’t have to pull a smartphone out of your pocket.””

    Nice sleight of hand here. The issue is not needing to pull your smartphone out of your pocket. Before that issue were to arise, you’d have to ask yourself why you brought your ultrabook in the first place when the smartphone ably serves most functions.

  5. Andre Goulet

    I think there is a longer play going on here. Intel already provides the processors for the Air, so it isn’t really that they are worried about. It’s Windows 8 on ARM that’s freaking them out and that they are trying to dodge. Or, more accurately, get you to inadvertently dodge.

    If they can get you to buy an Ultrabook instead of a tablet, for which they currently have no real solution, then they get to keep you on Intel. That explains these feeble attempts at touch on a laptop (poor solution), comments like “so you don’t have to pull a smartphone out of your pocket,” (dumb comment) and the whole at-a-glance initiative that we all know isn’t suited to a laptop.

    Simply put, without an ARM type of low power consumption solution they will lose market share. I know they have things ‘coming soon’ and all, but not unlike MS they are currently on the path to irrelevance. This must be freaky for them as it’s a unique position for them to be in. Unlike MS though, they only need one good product to bring them back.

    • Intel *currently* supplies the processor for the MB Air.

      Problem is, Apple could, very easily, switch that out to an A6 or A7, since Apple makes the OSX toolchain and now also has the Mac App Store.

      Enter my hypothetical 2012 or 2013 Macbook Air with 2x battery life, decent imagination 6-series graphics chip and an Apple-designed processor. They could probably make it 20% lighter at least, and probably fan-less.

      You may laugh now, but Intel is soiling their pants about this possibility.

  6. The problem Intel is addressing is the proliferation of “computing devices” that all do different things. I have a couple of lap-tops, a couple of desk-tops (one for each office), two HDTV’s, a iPad, a Kindle, a digital point and shoot camera, and an Android smart-phone. I rarely use the camera, instead just use my phone. And, I would love to get rid of the computers, the tablet and eReader. I would be great to have all the functionalities of these devices converge so the only thing to consider would be form factor.

    I really like Intel’s idea of an UltraBook that can do all things. I cannot see doing with my TV’s or smart phone, but the others I would be more than happy to dump.

  7. Arvin Alba

    “Consumption is good for cows. We are humans.” – Bullshit. The little non-consumption activities most normal people do are basic word processing, e-mail/communication and light photo and video editing. Some of these are better optimized for tablets (video chat, LIGHT photo editing) and some are better with mouse and keyboard, but the compromises are not too dire.

    But I also disagree that there’s little market for Ultrabooks. I think that in the near future, all laptops that will be sold are Ultrabooks. And there is still a substantial percentage of the population that works better with traditional input/more processing power – bloggers like you for instance, and students, and many office workers that require very heavy word processing and/or e-mail. Desktops won’t cut it for them because they would also need the productivity boost on the go.

    But the desktop will still keep a hefty chunk, though – mostly in the professional and amateur creative industry, and in gaming, as well as those processor intensive industry programs.

  8. “Consumption is good for cows. We are humans,”

    He is right, and it’s why a tablet will not replace a laptop for me, but…………… to be capable of productivity computing demands a high performance GPU capable of compute tasks in 2012.

    And I have yet to be convinced that Ivy Bridge will provide that.

    • gorgeousninja

      “Consumption is good for cows. We are humans,”

      That line was getting old about 18months ago. Anyone that is still calling the iPad a consumption only device clearly isn’t paying attention…

  9. IMO Intel should have put more effort into making Atom more capable. Cedar Trail is very late to the party in 2012, as was Pinetrail in 2010.

    Build a better netbook, and you won’t need an uber-thin and uber-priced laptop.

    • sigivald

      Who the hell wants a netbook?


      After the “new” (Late 2010) MacBook Air came out, I got one and have essentially not touched my netbook since.

      There’s a reason the netbook market collapsed, and it wasn’t “because Atom wasn’t good” – it’s because at the netbook price point, all the products are basically crap.

      (And I think you greatly underrate the power of thin and light. My MBA, despite having a screen 2″ larger [and significantly more pixels] than my netbook, “feels” considerably smaller.

      Small is good. Light is good. Well-built is good. Cheap netbooks usually manage a sort of “thick” small, with bad build quality and extra weight.

      There’s a reason the MBA sells like hotcakes and the netbook segment is moribund. They provided bad value.

      Remember that value is not price.)

    • yusuke toyoda

      But “a better netbook” is kind of an oxymoron. Netbooks are basically crappy laptops with smaller screens designed solely to get under a certain pricepoint.

  10. Lindsworth Horatio Deer

    Intel is the main benefactor of Ultrabooks. Tablets already exist an so do meatier duel core processors. but Ultrabooks are really clone for Apple Macbook airs that help Intel sell more Ivy Bridge processors. Here’s hoping Intel can catch up with the popularity of ARM and Apple’s ultrathin hard-drive less DVD driveless Apple Macbook Air, which even the Apple iPad is cannibalizing!!!

  11. Gadgety

    I work mainly in powerpoint and word, occasionally in excel. I need those three, and my customers expect me to run Windows suite stuff. So what’s the best alternative if I want an ULTRAPORTABLE, lightweight solution? I’m not saying it’s ultrabooks, I’m just asking what to go for.

  12. They are trying to solve the problem “how do windows notebook manufacturers compete with the macbook air?”. Tablets don’t work for everything, sometimes you want a regular computer, and there just hasn’t been a real competitor to the air.

  13. Travis Henning

    Very interesting article. I can’t fathom why Intel (Eden) even mentioned not having to pull out your smart phone. I understand its a concept device (like at auto shows), but who are they trying to kid. If I’m carrying a laptop, even an UltraBook, its going to be in a bag of some sort. If I need to check my calendar, I’m not pulling the PC out of the bag, I’m pulling my phone out of my pocket. Interesting concept, but not useful for day-to-day activities. Intel makes great CPUs for general purpose computing, however they struggle to compete in the mobile specific computing that is going to be the future of consumer electronics and most computing. People will likely still own a general computing device in the near future, but all second and third+ devices (phones, tablets, etc) they purchase will be very mobile.