Intel Readies Ultrabook Blitz, But Questions Loom

Intel wants 2012 to be the year of the Ultrabook, and the chip maker is poised to pump millions of dollars into its biggest marketing campaign in nearly a decade to achieve that goal. Judging by the number of OEM devices at CES last month, the Ultrabook is well on its way to becoming a household name. But the variety of Ultrabooks that flooded Las Vegas has also led to questions about the category's pricing, technical specifications, and enterprise-readiness.

Intel spent much of the week during CES promoting its Ultrabook brand, along with a host of OEM partners -- HP, Lenovo, Dell and Samsung to name just a few -- with new, ultra-thin notebooks to show off. And unlike the chip maker's Netbook product category, Intel has set its sights on much bigger goals for the Ultrabook; instead of simply introducing a lower-cost laptop model, Intel wants to re-energize and revolutionize the PC.

"We're evolving the PC to be ultra-portable, ultra-responsive, and totally without compromise," Intel CEO Paul Otellini said during his CES keynote. "There's an awful lot of excitement around Ultrabooks."

Otellini said more than a dozen Ultrabook systems are currently shipping, with more than 60 additional models in the pipeline for this year. The spotlight on the Ultrabook has led to some inevitable questions, the first of which is: what is the definition of an Ultrabook? According to Intel, an Ultrabook must be less than 21 mm or 0.8-inches thick and weigh less than 3.1 pounds, with a minimum of five hours of battery life. And of course, it must feature Intel technology, specifically second-generation Sandy Bridge Core processors (and third-generation Ivy Bridge processors in the near future) and accompanying features like Intel's Rapid Start Technology for faster boot and wake-up times and embedded security features (Intel's Anti-Theft Technology and Identity Protection Technology).

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But noticeably absent from Intel's Ultrabook guidelines are parameters for storage, disc drives and display resolutions. And while Intel has stated that Ultrabooks should be priced around $1,000, prices have already begun to fluctuate wildly, from as low as $800 to $1,500 or more.

For example, HP's first Ultrabook, the Folio 13, is priced at $899 while the newly-unveiled Envy 14 Spectre is listed at $500 more. Even in the early stages of the Ultrabook's existence, Intel faces some challenges in bringing a cohesive, succinct message to both the commercial and consumer markets.

Intel, however, is welcoming the variety of specifications, designs and price points and isn't concerned the loose guidelines for Ultrabooks will create confusion. "The Ultrabook is storage agnostic – you can have an HDD or SSD," said Anand Lakshmanan, Intel Ultrabook marketing manager. "Some users may want lighter and thinner, and some may want more storage capacity, so we offer both."

That leeway also goes for screen size, too. "When we started out, we focused on the 13-inch model," he said. "But we've gotten a lot of feedback from different regions and cultures that requested 14-inch and 15-inch displays or even larger ones."

In short, Lakshmanan said the chip maker doesn't want too many restrictive guidelines to force OEM partners into churning out cookie-cutter designs (after all, Intel created the Ultrabook to reinvigorate PC innovation, not stifle it). "We're very excited. We've never had this kind of computing power in this kind of thin form factor," he said. "And it's not just about Intel -- this is about OEM and component makers and application developers, too."

OEM partners are also excited -- to a certain point. "We're definitely positive about the direction of the Ultrabook," said Scott Ledterman, director of mobile PC marketing at Samsung Enterprise Business Division. "I think the PC market has gotten complacent in recent years, and the Ultrabook is moving people toward more innovative and sexier PCs, which is a good thing. In time, I think Ultrabooks will influence the entire PC industry."

But Ledterman isn't sure that influence will translate to big sales.

"Will Ultrabooks be a huge percentage of volume for the industry?" he asked. "No, I don't believe that will be the case."

Next: Vendors Weigh In On Ultrabook Expectations

While many OEMs, from HP to Acer, have jumped on the Ultrabook train, Samsung is unique because the Korean manufacturer created "the grandfather of the Ultrabook," according to Ledterman. The Samsung Series 9 was introduced last year, which was quickly billed as a "Macbook Air Killer," and the notebook is credited with kicking off the ultra-thin notebook movement -- at least for PCs.

While the original Series 9 wasn't technically an Ultrabook (it predated the movement and didn't have a few requisite features), the second-generation one is considered an Ultrabook -- sort of. At a starting price of $1,399.99 for the 13.3-inch model, the Series 9 is most definitely over the Ultrabook's $1,000 price target.

There are other challenges, too, and not just for the Series 9 but many other Ultrabook models. For example, solid-state drives with lower storage capacity don't address mainstream needs, Ledterman said. A true ultra-thin notebook like the Series 9 will be forced to sacrifice storage capacity.

And then there's the lack of optical drives, which will also put off some users. "An optical drive is kind of like a security blanket," Ledterman said. "Even if people aren't using it as much anymore, it's still a purchase enabler for 2012."

That explains why Samsung decided to go in a slightly different direction with its new Series 5 ULTRA; the 14-inch Series 5 is the first Ultrabook to carry an optical drive. In addition, the Series 5 13-inch model also offers the option for a "hybrid drive" -- a 500-GB hard drive for data storage accompanied by a 16-GB SDD for a Windows operating system. Plus, both Series 5 Ultrabooks have price tags more in line with Intel's "mainstream price point" of around $1,000 (the 13.3-inch model starts at $899).

"We see hybrid storage is a big part of the future," Ledterman said. "You get more storage for your data, but you also have the speed and responsiveness that SSD offers."

Lenovo is another major PC maker that's jumped on the Ultrabook train. The fastest growing major PC manufacturer for two years now unveiled the IdeaPad Yoga (which isn't technically an Ultrabook) and the IdeaPad U300 series at CES. The Yoga was one of the more talked-about products in Las Vegas, and with good reason -- it features a 360-degree flip-and-fold display that allows the notebook to convert into a fully functional tablet.

Despite the buzz around the IdeaPad Yoga, Ultrabooks appear to be a small component of Lenovo's overall growth strategy. David Schmook, senior vice president and general manager of Lenovo North America, says the company is focused on growing its desktop business, which it hopes will compliment its already strong ThinkPad and IdeaPad notebook brands. "The fact is, there are fewer desktop players now than there are notebook players," Schmook said. "There's a robust desktop market out there, and we're committed to growing that business."

That's not to say Schmook doesn't see potential for Ultrabooks; on the contrary, he and the rest of Lenovo believe the move toward ultra-thin, ultra-portable notebooks will create more demand for PCs. But there's a catch.

"The challenge will be to get to a more attractive, mainstream price point. Ultrabooks can't just be a premium device with a premium price," Schmook said. "If we can get that price point down to the $600 to $700 level, that will really push the volume up and I think three years down the road we'll see Ultrabooks as a dominant [form factor]."

Lakshmanan agrees that Ultrabooks will eventually move down to a lower price point, but Intel doesn't want to see it get too low.

"It's going to get to a more mainstream price point eventually, but not a bargain basement price point," Lakshmanan said. "It's not a race to the bottom. It's not going to get down to $199, but it won't stay at $1,000 or $900 forever."

Next: Ultrabooks And The Enterprise

Besides pricing and specifications, there's also a key question as to whether or not Ultrabooks are right for the enterprise. At first glance, the sleek and ultra-thin designs seem more targeted toward consumers who want an attractive mobile device – i.e., the Apple crowd. But that's now how Intel sees it.

"There's been a perception that Ultrabooks are for consumers only," Lakshmanan said."But we see them appealing to commercial customers, too.

Several vendors have already taken aim at the commercial market with enterprise Ultrabooks. For example, HP introduced the Folio 13 as the industry's "first business Ultrabook," touting features like embedded security and an optional USB 2.0 dock for a desktop-like environment.

Dell also introduced a business-class Ultrabook during CES; Dell Vice Chairman Jeff Clarke joined Otellini on stage during the Intel keynote to introduce the XPS 13, a 13.3-inch Ultrabook priced as $999 and poised as both a consumer and commercial customers. "It's defining what this category is all about," Clarke said during the event. "It will set a new level of expectation."

Clarke also said the XPS 13 Ultrabook would be "enterprise ready" for corporate clients. But Dell's enterprise-friendly features include somewhat standard items like Trusted Platform Module integration for Bitlocker Data Encryption and configuration services like custom imaging and asset tagging. There's little that distinguishes a business Ultrabook from a consumer Ultrabook at this early stage, and that can partially be attributed to the consumerization of IT and the blurring of the line between commercial and consumer markets. But Lakshmanan additional enterprise features will be coming in this year's crop of Ultrabooks, such as Intel's vPro for remote PC access and management and enhanced graphics for videoconferencing functions. "I do see the Ultrabook penetrating the enterprise space," Ledterman said, "but there are some challenges beyond the storage capacity and disc drives."

Ledterman sees Ultrabooks as a good fit for higher-level executives and salespeople that spend much of their time on the road. But what about employees who spend most of their time at their desk? Ultrabooks are designed to be mobile and don't have the underside notebook locks or docking stations to serve as desktop replacements.

But that may be coming, too. Greg Wood, vice president of global sales at Kensington, sees growing demand for Ultrabooks and, in general, lighter and thinner laptops that are easier to carry and more aesthetically pleasing. Wood believes the trend will soon become the norm, and that has changed Kensington's whole approach to physical security for notebooks. "If you look at an Ultrabook, they don't have those underside notebook locks," he said. "We're working on some things that will address that issue. As the platform changes from big, clunky laptops to ultra-thin notebooks, we're going to be there."

The Ultrabook is less than a year old and clearly a work in progress. But Intel is clearly putting muscle behind the movement -- Kevin Sellers, vice president of Intel's Sales and Marketing Group, said during the chip maker's CES press conference that Ultrabooks will benefit from Intel's biggest ad campaign since the Centrino push in 2003. And that may keep OEM partners invested in the model -- and prevent Ultrabooks from suffering the same fate as netbooks.

"I'm bullish about Ultrabooks because they're clearly different -- sleeker, nicer, and better-looking," Schmook said. "I think the Ultrabook movement is in its infancy, but when Intel gets into a market like this and really gets behind then they make it work."