It’s a depressing fact, but a fact nonetheless: it’s easy to get jaded and cynical when you write about technology. For my money, it’s what Apple does so remarkably well – engineering a cultish fanbase that translates into general interest and mainstream buzz for their products.
PC makers have always had a harder time of things – possibly we have such a legacy of the “dull grey box” that, as users and customers, we demand some proof in the pudding well before we’re willing to chow down, while Apple fans seem to sit around with spoon in hand just in case.
And then, the ultrabook arrived. Despite the immediate and hyperbolic cries of “the Macbook Air competitor” the ultrabook was a genuinely electrifying mix of power and design. Tradition has always been that portability must come at a cost – usually in terms of power. The netbook was the perfect example of this.
In the second day keynote speech at IDF in September 2011, Intel VP Mooly Eden pinned the future of the PC industry on the ultrabook form factor, calling the thin and light devices a “fundamental transformation of personal computing”.
The speech hammered home the combination of portability and power that manufacturers hope will make the ultrabook successful against the encroaches of the tablet, with much being made of the so-called media consumption vs media creation split. Intel’s marketing push for the ultrabook seems to revolve around the central concept that the ultrabook allows for greater ease in the creation of content, differentiating it from the tablet.
Above all, Intel has impressed with its overall commitment to the “end user experience”. Much as one can roll their eyes when marketing people say that they’re “putting the personal back in PC” and making the “c stand for creation”, as a company, Intel puts a remarkable amount of thought (and presumably time, money and effort) into thinking about the ever-so-humble user.
It’s easy to get cynical about certain things: it’s hard not to think of Intel’s work with the next generation of Atom processors as a mild case of shutting the barn door after letting the StrongARM horse bolt, back when it should have been looking a little further down the line.
It’s easy to see the ultrabook obsession as a mere marketing ploy to keep the PC relevant. But Intel is a company, not a philanthropic organisation – of course it wants a bite of tablet cherry and even more bites of PC cherry and only a fool would condemn it for it.
I’ve long held a theory that any technology is at its best when it becomes invisible. The example I always drag out is the light switch: one only ever thinks of the light switch when it doesn’t work. Flick that switch, a light comes on, and nary a neuron is expended in contemplation of having made it happen – it is, for all intents and purposes, invisible.
Any tech should aspire to that level of invisibility. Think of the horror show that was trying to set up a home Wi-Fi network back in the early ’00s compared to the relative simplicity now and you’ll get a sense of what I mean.
That aspiration of invisibility is all about the end user experience. The touchscreen has proven itself a remarkable success story in this arena (hand a non-touchscreen eReader to anyone under 25 and watch them stab their fingers at the screen in increasing frustration, if you need proof). And for a company that’s traditionally been thought of as “chip guys”, Intel has an impressive understanding of this.
Back at IDF in 2011, Eden – after banning photography for a few moments in the round table – pulled out a concept prototype of an ultrabook that incorporated a clear touchscreen interface on the case – later to be revealed as the Nikiski at CES 2012.
Why shouldn’t he be reading his text messages from his phone on that screen while the laptop was closed, he asked. Why shouldn’t he be able to say “meeting room” to the laptop and have it know that he wanted directions to the room that his schedule listed as his next destination – and have those directions shown on the external screen?
The processing capacity is almost there – and that 2013 deadline for Haswell deployment, according to Eden, is when it should arrive. So, Intel is interested in looking at how that end user experience might well be created. This is, bear in mind, a company that does not make screens, does not actually make laptops and does not make commercial user interfaces.
Rapid boot up, instant-on, all-day battery life, high-end graphics processing in a tiny form factor – for the average punter, these aren’t exciting ideas. But they are something they desperately want, even if they don’t entirely realise it. It’s good to know that someone with as much clout as Intel is excited about it.
But has it worked? Intel was adamant that the ultrabook would quickly steal a massive 40 percent of the market. In February this year, Merrill Lynch said that ultrabook sales would hit 15 million globally in 2012, making 7 percent of the market. That’s a big gap, although the report also suggested in 2013 those numbers will be $50 million and 20 percent.
Crucially, the ultrabook needs to hit the right price to be the success that Intel – and ultimately the PC manufacturers – needs it to be. According to Merrill Lynch, that price point will be US$750, or around $700 in local cash. In our group test, the prices ranged from $1055 to $2499 – a significant disparity.
If the PC buying public is ever to be persuaded the ultrabook is more than just “executive eye candy”, manufacturers need to get on-board with low-priced entry level units.