Intel's Plan To Make Laptops Sexy Again: Ultrabooks

Intel's ultrabook initiative has reinvigorated mobile PC design. But will ultrabooks steal some momentum from tablets, or are they too little, too late?

Mike Feibus, Analyst, TechKnowledge Strategies

August 21, 2012

5 Min Read

Tablet Vs. Ultrabook: 10 Ways To Choose

Tablet Vs. Ultrabook: 10 Ways To Choose

Tablet Vs. Ultrabook: 10 Ways To Choose (click image for larger view and for slideshow)

When people are on the go, they don't want to carry more than two personal electronic devices: one in the pocket and one in the bag. When a third device crops up, it's because it addresses a shortcoming in one or both primary devices.

I've been saying this for more than a decade, as InformationWeek's Patrick Houston noted in his recent ode to the not-dead-yet PC. I believed in the two-device maxim when PDAs thrust their way onto the scene. I believed it when portable navigation devices began selling. And I still believed it as Apple prepared to bring the first media tablet to market.

These days, though, amidst the persistent flood of tablet shipments and pessimistic PC forecasts, I've had to defend my little two-device maxim like never before. Are we temporarily out of balance? Or is this the start of a new normal?

I'll spare you the suspense and cut right to the chase: We are out of balance. Personal device equilibrium still stands at two. That said, though, there's a distinct possibility that laptops and tablets will coexist for years, jostling for elbow room in over-crowded backpacks and briefcases across the globe. Whether they do--and for how long--hinges on the success or failure of Windows 8-based ultrabooks, which debut this fall.

Yes, I know that sounds like a cop-out. But it's not. Remember, devices show up to address a need that the two existing devices aren't serving. And we won't get back down to equilibrium before two devices can once again serve all of our needs.

Consider device equilibrium in the pocket, which has been out of whack for years. Many of us carry both smartphones and MP3 players (some of you may call these iPods), even though smartphones can bang out a playlist with the best of them. The reason: smartphones are power-hungry. If we let them take on all the functions they're capable of handling, their batteries would be dead by lunchtime. And then we wouldn't be able to use our telephones for, you know, telephony.

We'll keep carrying MP3 players until our smartphones can replace them--and still have some juice left when we're ready to call it a day.

Inside the bag, insufficient battery life was one of the biggest opportunities afforded to the tablet as well. There were others, though. Tablets are lighter than laptops, and the form factor is more conducive to lean-back activities like watching a video or reading a book. Tablets are generally more responsive than laptops, which makes them more accessible for in-and-out actions like checking an appointment or settling a debate with a quick Internet search.

To be sure, the PC ecosystem is responding. The combination of Intel's ultrabook initiative, Windows 8, touch, and other tablet-like benefits is sparking a blaze of design innovation that's bound to rekindle PC sales growth in the coming quarters.

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In the meantime, the march continues. Users are adopting tablets quickly, and that's changing behavior. The Consumer Electronics Association reported that 29% of connected consumers in the U.S. owned a media tablet at the end of the second quarter, compared to 20% just three months earlier. And according to a survey published in June, online purchases now happen more often on smartphones and tablets than on PCs.

Tablets are also changing user tastes, and that may be the biggest threat of all to the PC. (See InformationWeek's recent comparison of the rivals: Tablet Vs. Ultrabook: 10 Ways To Choose.) Indeed, tablets are conditioning users to demand more from their systems. And the PC ecosystem is responding. Laptops for sale this holiday season will be much more compelling than they were last year. Their batteries will last longer. The machines will be more responsive. And they'll be thinner and sleeker.

But will the holiday laptops be sleek, responsive, and power-miserly to an eye-popping degree? We'll see. One thing's for sure: laptops won't match tablets on any of those features.

That could backfire if the PC vendors aren't careful about how they market their ultrabooks. The holiday systems will need to be positioned as better laptops, not tablet competitors. If they take the latter road, they'll risk unfavorable comparisons in increasingly important areas.

Trust me: the last thing the PC vendors need at this point is to have their products viewed as fat iPads.

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About the Author(s)

Mike Feibus

Analyst, TechKnowledge Strategies

Mike Feibus is principal analyst at TechKnowledge Strategies, a Scottsdale, Ariz., market strategy and analysis firm focusing on mobile ecosystems and client technologies. You can reach him at [email protected].

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