The Ultrabook Era: Intel's Pledge To Make PCs Cool Again

Amid a backdrop of research numbers suggesting smartphones and tablets are the undisputed kings of today's computing arena, Intel is holding firmly to its PC-centric roots and still aiming aggressively to place Ultrabooks at the top of consumers' wish lists.

According to Karen Regis, director of Ultrabook marketing within Intel's PC Client group, the next wave of Ultrabooks slated to launch in 2013 will outshine their predecessors, touting Windows 8, Intel's fourth-generation Haswell processors, and new capabilities for touch and voice activation. But it's the convertible Ultrabooks -- meaning those that can be used in either traditional clamshell or tablet form factor -- that ultimately will capture consumers' attention and revitalize the PC market, she said.

"The PC is a must-have device. People still have to buy PCs to do the many things they have to do," Regis told CRN during an interview at this week's Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco. "So I think if we can offer something to a consumer that is saying 'I don’t know whether to get this device or that one' … if we can make a convertible that offers some of the stuff that they might be looking for in a tablet, but still has full PC functionality, then I think they'll buy it."

[Related: Intel To Tackle Big Data With New Xeon Processors, Integrated Fabrics ]

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Intel showcased a number of upcoming convertibles during Tuesday's opening Intel Developer Forum sessions. Perhaps the most unique was Dell's new XPS Duo 12 convertible, a Windows 8-equipped Ultrabook that can be used as a traditional notebook PC or as a tablet by rotating its top lid, which is detachable from the bezel frame, and closing the clamshell. OEMs including Asus and Hewlett-Packard also have unveiled hybrid devices, with others including Lenovo readying them for later this year.

Intel's faith in the PC market contrasts sharply with industry numbers. According to research firm Gartner, worldwide PC sales are down 0.1 percent in 2012 vs. 2011, and down 5.7 percent in the U.S. It was the seventh consecutive quarter in which the PC market saw flat to single-digit growth.

Intel itself has taken a hit from this stalled momentum. In its second-quarter earnings announcement in July, the Santa Clara, Calif., chip maker reported a 4 percent year-on-year drop in net income to $2.8 billion. Last week, Intel warned investors that its third quarter isn't looking any rosier; a continually sluggish PC market is again projected to yield weaker-than-expected sales.

Still, Regis said Intel is sticking to its original projection of Ultrabooks accounting for nearly 40 percent of all PC sales by the end of the year.

"Nothing has changed in the last couple of months," Regis said of the 40 percent goal, declining to drill down any further into numbers. "Intel sets aggressive targets, always. You'll never see us with a wimpy target."

NEXT: Lower Price Points To Boost Ultrabook Sales

Capturing such a large share of the market is an ambition that could be facilitated by the drop in Ultrabook pricing that is expected to occur over the next few months. Regis said that the $699 price point, in particular, will become a more common one. This is a hefty drop compared to the $1,300 price tag found on some Ultrabook models, such as Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Carbon, on the market today.

"We projected that OEMs will be able to hit entry-system price point of $699 by the holidays. And I think the reports that I have read and stuff that I have seen on online retail, there are multiple systems now being offered at that price point, and it's not just one or two," Regis said. "So $699, yes, it's doable."

To ensure these price points are attainable, Regis said that some of the new features set to launch with next-generation Ultrabooks, such as voice activation, gesture control and touch, won't be added to Intel's list of required specs OEMs must meet to bear the Ultrabook brand. Instead, they will be optional features OEMs can choose, or not choose, to adopt.

Intel does plan to capture some share in the smartphone and tablet markets with its upcoming Clover Trail Atom line of processors, which will go head-to-head with low-power ARM-based processors from rival chip makers such as Qualcomm and Nvidia. But despite these new markets, Intel's commitment to PCs doesn't appear to be waning any time soon.

"We get really excited by the quantity, the diversity of systems that are in the market. I think there is something for everyone in Ultrabooks, and now we are starting to see a lot of ... systems moving down to more accessible price points, so we're really encouraged by that," Regis said. "With the new wave of systems expected to come to market for the holidays ... we think that there is a lot of promise there."