What if there was No Ultrabook?

Posted on 26 July 2012, Last updated on 26 July 2012 by

ultrabook opinionUltrabook is a project, a long-term multi-faceted work by many companies under many project names to bring together some of the best and most-efficient technologies, software and processes in the laptop industry and to make a personal computing product fit for the next ten years.

The products coming of the line so far are a good sign that the industry is responding to Intel’s seeding. Style is improving dramatically, Windows boots faster, weight of 13.3” laptops has dropped from over 2KG to well under 2KG and in many cases under 1.5KG. Let’s not forget what the options were, and how expensive they were, just 18 months ago.  What would the laptop landscape look like now if the Ultrabook project, and the preceding silicon design, had not happened?

Behind the scenes there’s more to the Ultrabook than a slick consumer laptop. Because Ultrabooks are highly integrated there’s less for a designer or manufacturer to do to put a working laptop together. Because the size and weight is much lower, shipping and storage charges are lower. Because batteries can be sealed inside there are fewer safety approval processes. Smaller motherboards mean less material costs – as can smaller, simpler, sealed designs.

We’re moving to a point where a laptop can almost be ‘printed’ together and that I mean 100% automation which removes manpower, increases yield and, something else that you have to pay for, support.

Sealed units coming off a mechanical production line are going to 1) have fewer faults from source 2) fewer faults caused through user tampering and, something that isn’t very eco-friendly but helps the manufacturers – a no-repair repair service. Simply hand over a fresh device.

The Ultrabook is ultimately a cheaper way to produce a laptop.

As we go through stage one of this transition, costs are still high for the new manufacturing lines and new components are used. A big change like this is also be an opportunity to push up some prices and do some re-marketing. I suspect the marketing was a critical part of the Ultrabook project.

Maybe in the future someone will reveal that as chairman and women sat around a big table in Taipei shortly after the launch of the first iPad, everyone agreed it was time to shake a leg and get busy. Intel, the big player with the big money had an obvious chance to ‘seal Intel Inside’ and to match investment money with marketing money to create a ‘wave’ that would provide momentum to speed up the process and create a three-year sub-category which could slowly move from high-margin premium models down to mainstream – thus giving the manufacturers a few years of extra cash which they could use to invest in the changes needed. Without this ‘premium first’ approach, manufacturers would probably have never committed. [Side Note: There’s a manufacturer / brand out there that can command premium prices. Is it any surprise that they were able to run a relatively unsuccessful consumer-focused product for 2 years before it got the balance right?]

Maybe I’m over estimating the ability of a global ecosystem to work together like this but watch Ultrabook prices for hints about where costs are going. Watch IT departments too as the VPro Ultrabooks feed in. Will they result in less risk and lower TCO?

What would have happened if the Ultrabook project had not happened though? Catastrophe for the traditional laptop market?

Lower margins for manufacturers would be unsustainable. Laptops would still be taking 60 seconds to boot. 2.5KG 14” models would be the norm. Fewer SSD-only options. Less efficient laptops.

More importantly Intel would be at risk as AMD-based products would have an improved position in the market. The ever increasing risk of tablets turning into smartbooks, especially with Windows RT, would make a lot of investors nervous too. The Ultrabook protects that area, especially as details on Haswell emerge.

Ultrabook, the project, is way bigger, and has been going on a lot longer than Ultrabook, the product. While the latter includes a large amount of marketing, the former is the important behind-the-scenes part that brings us better, faster, thinner, lighter and more dynamic laptops. In total, Ultrabook has achieved a lot in the laptop industry, for all players, and is likely to do much more over the next 2 years.

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