At a press event at the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Intel celebrated the arrival of the Ultrabook, its research-honed vision of the shape of mobile computers to come--devices with less weight and more security, that don't sacrifice the power to display media.
The ultrabook, an Intel trademarked term, is more or less a tablet with a keyboard. It exists because tablets and mobile phones have been selling better than notebook computers and because Apple has proven that a notebook stripped of its optical drive and juiced with the speed of flash memory has market appeal. It exists because Intel has to offer an alternative to ARM-based chips, which are powering more and more mobile devices. To bring its chip-based vision to market, Intel last year set up a $300 million Ultrabook Fund to help make the necessary components more affordable.
Intel PC Client Group VP and general manager Mooly Eden demonstrated several ways in which ultrabook can be used, with an eye toward convincing people that putting notebooks on an ultrabook diet doesn't make them too frail to handle processor-intensive media playback or general computing tasks.
What is an ultrabook? Read CES 2012: Ultrabook Ultimate FAQ
There are already more than 15 ultrabook models available from Acer, ASUS, HP, Lenovo, LG, Samsung, and Toshiba and they share many of the characteristics of Apple's MacBook Air, along with their own distinctive designs and features.
More are on the way. Intel says there are more than 75 ultrabook models in the pipeline for 2012. The second generation of ultrabooks will feature Intel's forthcoming "Ivy Bridge" processors in the spring. Third generation models planned for next year will be based on a subsequent model of processor, dubbed "Haswell," which boasts a significantly improved power consumption when idle.
Having encouraged manufacturers to make devices that beg to be stolen, Intel is also raising its bet on security. With the introduction of "Ivy Bridge" models in the second half of 2012, all ultrabooks will come with Intel Anti-Theft technology, to lock down stolen devices, and Intel Identity Protection technology, for hardware-based two-factor authentication.
Intel has been working with MasterCard to integrate support for payment systems like MasterCard PayPass (also used by Google Wallet) and future ultrabook users and merchants should be able to handle online transactions more securely and efficiently through NFC technology.
Intel's interest in security is also informed by its 2011 acquisition of security software maker McAfee. Intel has built McAfee's DeepSAFE technology into its Core i3, i5, and i7 processors, in order to provide insight into memory usage and processor activity.
Yet for all its effort to jump-start the ultrabook market, Intel doesn't seem to know what ultrabooks will look like. Intel suggests that future ultrabook designs could be widely varied, from the traditional clamshell form factor to hybrid models that work both as laptops and tablets. The company could have just called them computers. But then they might not have been ready to play the part of "the next big thing."