Ultrabooks: The Next Big Thing In Notebooks

Aren't notebooks and PCs in general on the way out as we adopt tablet and touch interfaces and everything else moves to the cloud? Not so fast.
The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, traditionally a source of both fun and profit, was described by many I spoke with as lackluster--nothing really new or exciting. But there was a huge presence of what some vendors are describing as a new class of notebook PC: the Ultrabook. Marketing hype aside, though, there's really not a lot new going on here.

The Ultrabook can trace its roots to what used be called the ultraportable, typified by IBM's (now Lenovo's) X Series of notebook PCs, that featured a lightweight notebook that mated to a proprietary "slice" docking station that contained an optical drive, a few additional ports, and an additional battery. While the resulting combination was often heavy and, indeed, clunky, I and many others were huge fans of this form factor, allowing highly-mobile individuals like myself to minimize size and weight whenever possible.

Fast forward to now. With circuitry far more power efficient and little need for optical drives anymore, the aptly-named Ultrabook is today's ultraportable. And many, myself included, believe that Ultrabooks are the next big thing in notebooks. As a user of a MacBook Air, arguably the first Ultrabook, I appreciate the lust for light. Add elegant lines (less than 20 mm thick and less than 1.5 Kg in weight), fast boot up/power down, fast processors, more than sufficient RAM and local storage (which will increasingly be solid-state), long battery life, today's great display technologies, and a very reasonable price (in the $1,000 range) and, well, who wouldn't want one of these?

Indeed, I'm going to predict that Ultrabooks will become the standard corporate notebook over the next two years. Optical drives and ports beyond USB (3.0) and HDMI or DisplayPort (and perhaps the do-it-all Thunderbolt) are of little value today. It's all about small size, minimal weight, running a standard OS and applications, and, of course, wireless connectivity.

[ Take a visual tour of the Ultrabooks Of CES. ]

But wait--weren't tablets supposed to take over the world? Aren't notebooks and PCs in general on the way out as we adopt tablets form factors and touch interfaces (Windows 8, also big at CES, is on the way) and everything else moves to the cloud?

Not so fast--there's over 30 years of culture behind the notebook, going back to the very first laptop--the GRiD Systems Compass 1101, which I had the pleasure to be involved in the development of. And creators of content positively require a good keyboard, the hallmark of the notebook. While Windows 8 points the way (and yes, MacOS will, I believe, follow) to a single do-it-all OS for the four primary operating environments (handset, tablet, notebook/desktop, and server), and thus easing moving between these as desired, the notebook as Ultrabook will be with us--and by the way, outselling the tablet--for many years to come. The Ultrabook isn't really new, but it certainly will prove useful.

But wait, you say. Why won't the Ultrabook go the way of last year's (OK, two years ago) big hit, the Netbook? Because the Netbook, designed for casual use by content consumers. It was replaced, and rightly so, by the tablet, selling at the same price point. And why won't much cheaper Smartbooks, Chromebooks, and other Ultrabook-like form factors stunt the Ultrabook's growth? Because these are designed for the upcoming (yes, still) post-PC, cloud computing era, which will be defined by cost-effective, copious, and continuous (wireless) connectivity that simply isn't available yet.

And why will corporate IT departments pay more for an Ultrabook than for a cheaper, heavier notebook? Because the Ultrabook will be the only device, apart from a handset, that content creators will require, and refresh cycles will lengthen as innovation slows in the PC space, making the numbers work. The Ultrabook, in fact, may be the last stop on the road to the end of the PC as we know it. But that road stretches out a good number of years yet, and Ultrabooks will make the journey a lot more pleasant.

Craig Mathias is a Principal with Farpoint Group, a wireless and mobile advisory firm based in Ashland, Mass. Craig is an internationally recognized expert on wireless communications and mobile computing technologies. He is a well-known industry analyst and frequent speaker at industry conferences and trade shows.

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