Ultrabooks, MacBook Air, and the Need for Inspiration

on April 18, 2012

Inspired by Intel stickerIs the laptop business doomed to slowly ebb away as tablets capture more and more of the mobile market? It’s not hard to see a future where the world is divided into tablets and smartphones for the overwhelming majority of uses and workstations for heavy-duty computing, with very little in between.

This is not a very pleasant world for Intel to contemplate. Its efforts to date to win a share of the phone and tablet market have been unavailing and the success of a new generation of low-power Intel chips is far from assured.

Photo of Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook
Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook

This explains the marketing logic behind Intel’s $300 million campaign to promote Ultrabooks, its trademarked name for very thin and light laptops. If the past is any guide, a fair chunk of that $300 million is flowing straight to computer manufacturers who produce laptops that follow Intel’s specifications and display an “Inspired by Intel” slogan on their products and in their ads.

Whose inspiration? The problem is that a sticker is a poor substitute for actual inspiration, which has been in painfully short supply for years in laptops designed to run Windows. And it’s painfully obvious that the inspiration for Ultrabooks can not from Intel but from the Apple MacBook Air. Comparing the specifications of the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook and the MacBook Air 13″ make it hard avoid the conclusion that the Dell was intended as a sincere form of flattery:

Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook Apple MacBook Air 13”
Display 13.3” , 1366×768 13.3”, 1440×900 *
Processor 1.6 GHz Intel i5 1.7 GHz Intel i5 *
Memory 4 GB 4 GB
Storage 128 GB SSD 128 GB SSD
Dimensions 12.4”x8.1”x.24-.71” 12.8”x8.94”x.11-.68”
Weight 2.99 lb. 2.96 lb.
Price $999 $1,299
MacBook Air photo
MacBook Air 13"

A few Ultrabooks, like the $1,399 Hewlett-Packard Envy Spectre with a striking all-glass lid, avoid being Air lookalikes, but even HP admits the Spectre is intended more as a design statement than a mass-market product. By and large, PC makers seem determined to make their products look as much like MacBooks as possible.

Inspired by Microsoft? The introduction of Windows 8 at the end of this year could prove a major turning point for laptops. The problem is that it is difficult at this point to tell in which direction.

One thing that is clear is that Win 8 will cause a major fragmentation in the Windows hardware/software platform next year. There will be:

  • Traditional Windows notebooks, including Ultrabooks, and desktops powered by an assortment of Intel and AMD processors.
  • Intel-powered tablets that, like traditional systems, will be capable of running both new applications designed to Microsoft’s touch-centric Metro user interface and traditional Windows Desktop programs.
  • Tablets that, like the iPad and Android tablets, are based on ARM processors. These will run a separate version of the operating system, called Windows RT, that only supports Metro apps, plus Metro-ish versions of the Windows file manager and Microsoft Office.

Windows hardware will be competing with the iPad, a refreshed line of MacBooks that will probably include an Air-like 15” model, and Android tablets that can only get better. Is there some real innovation that computer makers can bring to the game.

One obvious point of differentiation for notebooks would be touch screens. Apple has made clear its distaste for touch on laptops and desktops, opting instead for sophisticated touchpads that support many of the gestures used on the iPad and iPhone. The latest version of  OS X, Mountain Lion, retains the windows-icons-menus-pointing device design that works best with a hardware keyboard and a mouse or touchpad.

Microsoft, by contrast, is reportedly encouraging OEMs to go for touchscreen laptops. Metro, of course, works with a mouse and keyboard but it screams for touch. I am not convinced that the ergonomics of a touch laptop will ever be very happy (and using an iPad with a keyboard presents the same sort of not entirely satisfactory compromise.)

Touch may or may not be the right answer. But Windows laptops need something –yes, some inspiration–to stay relevant. Just chasing Apple isn’t going to do it.

*–The processor speed and display resolutions were incorrect in the original post. These are the corrected values.