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There has been a lot of industry skepticism since Intel predicted at Computex Taipei 2011 that Ultrabooks would account for 40% of consumer portable sales by the end of 2012. That included skepticism from me as well, and I continue to have that skepticism. Rather than dive into that discussion though, I think it’s more important and productive to examine how Intel could conceivably achieve that goal.
What Intel is Actually Predicting
It’s important to understand what Intel means when they made their prediction. First, they are making the prediction for the consumer market, not the slower moving SMB, government, or enterprise markets. Also, the prediction is not for the entire year, it is for the end of December, 2012. That is, 40% of consumer notebooks by the end of December 2012 would need to be Ultrabooks. This makes a huge difference when evaluating the probability of this actually occurring.
So what would it take for 40% of all consumer notebook sales to be Ultrabooks by the end of 2012?
Make Ultrabooks Look New, Relevant, and Sexy
Intel and their ecosystem need make Ultrabooks perceived as new, relevant and sexy. By relevant I mean making the direct connection between what the Ultrabook delivers and what the consumer thinks they need. Sexy, is, well sexy, like MacBook Airs. The ecosystem must make a connection with:
- Thin and light– this is easier because Apple has blazed the trail and it is evident on the retail shelf.
- Fast startup– this is somewhat straightforward and a communicated consumer pain point with Windows today
- Secure– this is the most difficult in that it is always difficult to market a negative. It’s like life insurance; it sounds good, people say it’s important, then don’t buy it. I think Intel would be much more successful taking the same base technology and enabling exclusive consumer content or speeding up the on-line checkout or login process.
- Performance- this is difficult to market in that no longer does performance have a comparable metric and chip makers have appeared to stop marketing why it is even important.
- Convertibles- I am a big fan of future convertibles given the right design and OS. If OEMs can put together a classy, ~18mm design, it could very well motivate consumers to delay a tablet purchase. This will not work prior to Windows 8’s arrival, though because you really need Metro for good touch.
Probably the biggest impediment here is the “sexy” piece. Sexy is the “X” factor here. It’s cool to have an Apple MacBook Air. It isn’t cool yet to have an Ultrabook. A lot of that $300M UltraBook investment fund must pay for the Ultrabook positioning and re-positioning of anything Windows. This is a tough task, to say the least.
Steal Some Apple MacBook Air Market Share
Intel and their ecosystem, to hit the 40% target, will need to steal some of Apple’s market share. There is no way around this to achieve the 40% target unless they want to pull the dreaded “price lever”. Apple “owns” 90+% of the premium notebook market today and because Windows OEMs and Intel for that matter aren’t motivated to trash pricing now, they will need to steal some of Apple’s share. This will be a tough one, a real tough one particularly in that Intel shoots itself in the foot short-term by going aggressively after this one given they are inside every MacBook Air. So OEMs will need to take this one on their own, using Intel marketing funds as a weapon. This will be especially difficult given that Apple positioning isn’t going to be instantly erased by anything short term and Windows OEMs haven’t been able to penetrate this for years. Remember the Dell Adamo? Sexy, Windows 8 convertible designs could very well be the magic pill that could help steal share from Apple.
Lower Price Points
This is the last lever anyone wants to pull as it destroys positioning. Depending which data service you look at, the average consumer notebook ASP (average selling price) is between $600-700. This seems high, I know, when you look at what is being sold at local retailers, but remember that this includes on-line and Apple which has a higher ASP. Ultrabooks range from around $799 to $1,299 excluding Apple. This is well above the prices it would need to be to achieve the 40% goal. There are two ways to lower price; lower the cost or lower margins. I believe you will see a little bit of both.
As volumes increase, there will be immediate cost savings in expensive mechanicals like aluminum, plastic, and composites. Custom cooling solutions are very expensive required to cool thin chassis between 16-21mm in thickness. Tooling and design cost can be amortized over greater volumes to decrease the cost per unit. Intel Ivy Bridge, available in April 2012, will provide a shrink from 32nm to 22nm which would theoretically allow a lower price point at the same performance point, although I am sure Intel isn’t leading with that promise. Intel would much rather provide large marketing subsidies and pay NRE (non recurring engineering) costs to retailers and OEMS to design and promote the Ultrabook category. SSD is a tricky one to predict given spinning hard drive supply issues. Spinning hard drive price increases allow SSD makers to increase prices which doesn’t bode well for Ultrabook BOM costs in the short term.
Leverage Windows 8 Effect
The expected Windows 8 launch for the holiday of 2012 could help the Ultrabook cause on many fronts. First, it may give consumers a reason to consider buying a new laptop or notebook. I fully expect consumers to delay purchases and wait for Windows 8 to arrive. This could create a bubble in Q4 that, again, helps achieve the 40% goal.
Finally, Ultrabooks need to get off to a solid start in 2012. Consumer influencers and the rest of the ecosystem needs to perceive UltraBooks as a success in 1H/2012 for them to “double-down” for 2H/2012. CES will be one tactic to do this, where I expect to see 100s of designs on display to demonstrate OEM acceptance to the press, analysts, and retail partners. Intel’s Ivy Bridge will give another boost in April, followed by the Windows 8 launch. Retailers cannot be stuck with excess inventory and cannot make drastic price cuts that would only deposition the category. Currently there is skepticism on the entire Ultrabook value proposition and the price points they can command so there is a lot of work to be done.
Will Ultrabooks Achieve the 40% Target by End of 2012
While this analysis is about what it would take to achieve the goal, I must weigh on what I think will happen. I like to bucket these kinds of things into “possible” and “probable”. I believe that if the Ultrabook ecosystem could accomplish everything outlined above, Ultrabooks could hit 40% of consumer notebook sales by the end of 2012. So it is possible, BUT, I don’t see it as probable, primarily due to the low price points that it will need to be hit. There just isn’t enough time to reposition a Windows notebook as premium and either raise price points of the Windows notebook category or steal Apple market share.