Intel and Microsoft’s Secret Weapon Against Apple

on March 19, 2012
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Intel and their partners are about to launch the biggest promotion in a decade for a new product category called UltraBooks. Microsoft is also about to launch a major update to Windows called Windows 8 that introduces a new user interface based on touch with their new Metro UI. Together they are critical products for the future of each company individually.

Form Factor Evolution

In the case of UltraBooks, I actually see them as the natural evolution of laptops and not revolutionary as Intel would like us to think. Rather, they take advantage of the industry’s constant push to make things smaller, lighter, thinner and have better battery life. For mainstream consumers who have had to lug around their rather bulky laptops for the last 5 years, they would be justified in asking Intel and other Wintel vendors “what took you so long?” Given the fact that Apple has had their MacBook Air on the market for 5 years and it has defined what an Ultrabook should be.

With Windows 8 and Metro, Microsoft is also following an evolutionary path towards touch interfaces with their Metro based smart phones and soon to be Metro based tablets and PCs. Again, consumers could ask Microsoft “what took you so long?” since Apple has had their touch UI on the iPhone for 5 years and on their iPads for 2 years.

But both products have some interesting challenges attached to them when they launch later this year. In the case of UltraBooks, they most likely will have starting prices of at least $799-$899 although I hear there could be at least one that is pretty stripped down coming out at around $699.00. At these prices, they completely miss the mainstream laptop market that represents the bulk of laptops sold and are priced from $299 to $599.

In the case of Windows 8 and Metro, while Metro is great on Microsoft’s phones and works very well on the tablets I have tested it on, it does not translate well to the laptop or PC since 100% of existing PCs don’t have touch screens on them. And most of the PC vendors are not putting touch screens on the majority of their new laptops because to do so adds at least another $100-$150 in cost to the customer. If you have tested the consumer preview of Windows 8 and Metro on an existing laptop, you know how frustrating it is to use it on existing trackpads. I consider this an Achilles’ heal for Windows 8 and one that could really hurt its short-term prospects.

To be fair, Microsoft has recently (three weeks ago) released recommended guidelines for next generation track pads and a new design I have seen from Synaptics could make laptops work well with Metro once it gets into new laptops. But this should have been something Microsoft focused on a year ago and had all of the new laptops “Metro” enabled at launch. My sense is that Microsoft should have only launched Metro on tablets this year and gradually moved Windows 8 Metro to the consumer PC markets once they had laptops optimized for it.

Instead, I see a lot of consumer confusion on the horizon when they try to use Metro on existing trackpads and any other non-touch input device, as the experience will be confusing at first and frustrating afterwards. Also, you notice that Apple has not put touch screens on their laptops and desktops and instead, worked extra hard to create trackpads and external trackpads that map to the touch experience on the iPhone and iPad.

I consider the initial pricing for UltraBooks and putting Metro on laptops and desktops issues that could slow down any early adoption of these products this year and perhaps deliver a graduated adoption in the future. The two companies do have a secret weapon in the works that could get them a lot of kudo’s from the marketplace and be a key component in getting users really interested in Intel and Microsoft again.

A New Category

The secret weapon comes in the form of a new form factor often referred to as “hybrids.” These are either tablets that can be docked into a keyboard, turning them into a laptop or a laptop with a detachable keyboard. You might think they are one in the same, but they are very different in terms of design goals. In the case of the first, the design is specifically around the tablet and the keyboard dock is modular. We already have a lot of examples of this with the iPad where the tablet is the central device and the attachable Bluetooth keyboards are more of an after thought. In this case the keyboard just supports the input functions of the tablet. The same is true with the Asus Transformer line of devices.

But in the latter case, the design is around a slim laptop case and the screen (tablet) can be taken off and used as a tablet. I believe this latter design is the secret weapon that Microsoft and Intel can use against Apple and at least on paper, give Apple a run for the money especially in business and the enterprise. To a lesser extent it could be hot in some consumer segments where the keyboard is critical to what they do with a tablet and want a laptop centered experience as well.

This is where Apple’s current strategy can be challenged as they are offering these market two distinct products. There is the iPad that stands by itself, and then the MacBook Air, their UltraBook that like the iPad, also stands by itself as a separate product. The key reason is that each has their own operating system and although Mountain Lion, Apple’s new version of OS X brings a lot of iPad like iOS features to OSX, they are still separate and distinct operating systems.

But with the introduction of Windows 8 and used especially on a laptop centered hybrid in which the screen (tablet) can be detached and used as a true tablet that takes full advantage of Metro, Microsoft and Intel can give their customers the best of both worlds in a single device. When in “UltraBook” laptop mode, users can use Windows 7 and its comfortable UI they are used to and have available to them the over hundreds of thousands of Windows apps as is. But when the screen detaches, it automatically defaults to the Metro UI and the touch experience is now central to the device. Now apps designed for Metro can give the users a rich tablet experience out of the box. Sure, they could default to old Windows programs if needed, but running those on a tablet is clunky at best.

If done right, the user would end up with a Windows 8 UltraBook with a detachable screen (tablet) and have to only buy one device instead of two. Our research shows that IT and even some consumers would have no trouble paying $999 and above for this combo product. At this price it would be a bargain. Most IT purchased laptops are in the $699-$999 range now and those who bought iPads to augment their users work experiences cost at least $599 so a combo device say at even $1299-$1399 is more then reasonable for them. Intel knows this and believes that as much as 50% of all Windows tablets will be hybrids. And Microsoft will push these types of designed products especially if the uptake on Windows 8 on laptops doesn’t take off as planned.

Could anything potentially derail Intel and Microsoft’s “hybrid” strategy? Well, if Apple applied their great innovative design knowledge to creating a hybrid that blends the iPad and the MacBook Air into a single device, it could have an impact their ability to dominate this market. On the other hand, it would validate Intel and Microsoft’s strategy as well. If they beat Apple to the market with their version, which is highly likely since at least four hybrids are set to come out by Oct, it could be the “hero” product of the launch that shows users the value of an X 86 ecosystem and highlight to Windows users the need for Ultrabooks and Tablets and Win 8.