Intel Corp.'s Ultrabooks generated lots of publicity at the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES), but the marketing of Ultrabooks and similar laptop computers will generate a lot of confusion.
According to Intel, Ultrabook is the brand name for a new category of laptops that are thinner, faster, and lighter than many that have gone before. Intel requires Ultrabooks with a screen of 11 to 13 inches to be no thicker than 18mm (0.7 inches). Those with a screen of 14 to 17 inches should be no thicker than 21mm (0.8 inches). Also, Ultrabooks have SSDs (solid state drives), which typically are faster than traditional hard disk drives in functions such as awakening from standby mode and opening applications.
In addition, Ultrabooks should weigh 3.1 pounds or less and feature a battery life of five to eight hours. Entry-level versions should have a retail price no higher than $1,000. Finally, but most importantly for Intel, Ultrabooks must include its low-voltage microprocessors (e.g., Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge).
Intel is spending hundreds of millions of dollars in branding and to convince manufacturers to produce Ultrabooks. Intel Capital, the company's investment arm, has established a $300 million Ultrabook Fund to spur hardware and software development. It also has created a $100 million AppUp Fund to promote software for Ultrabooks, as well as netbooks and traditional laptops.
Though Intel calls Ultrabooks a new device category, its efforts are actually a direct reaction to Apple's MacBook Air, which includes an SSD, boots fast, and weighs 2.96 pounds with a 13.3-inch screen, or 2.38 pounds with an 11.6-inch screen. Introduced in January 2008, the MacBook Air has become one of the world's most lusted-after laptops.
Intel wants Ultrabooks not only to equal MacBook Airs, but also to offer more features and lower prices. Some are pretty good, though most have a hard time competing against MacBook Airs. As Ultrabooks continue to enter the market, consumers will just have to compare the devices and make their choice, right?
Not so fast. Manufacturers might play fast and loose with Ultrabook terminology. If a device is just a little heavier or more expensive than Intel prefers, well, what's the harm in that? Plenty, if consumers expect Ultrabooks to be lighter and cheaper than MacBook Airs.
Another problem: AMD will offer low-voltage Trinity chips for "ultrathins," though it isn't mandating hardware specifications for laptop manufacturers. AMD-based laptops might retail for $200 less than Ultrabooks but could feature SSDs with, uh, ultrathin designs.
And as the gadget pitchmen say, "Wait, there's more!"
During the CES, Vizio, a company known for its LCD TVs, debuted at least one laptop that meets Intel's Ultrabook specifications and features aluminum unibody construction similar to the MacBook Air's. Vizio isn't saying what microprocessor is used, but it's assumed to be an Intel chip. Vizio is calling these laptops "thin-and-lights," and it says no stickers, such as "Intel Inside," will be pasted on them.
So we'll have MacBook Airs, Ultrabooks, ultrathins, thin-and-lights, and who knows what else. Also, many manufacturers use the "thin-and-light" term for their lightweight but "regular" laptops. And some manufacturers will sell both Ultrabooks and ultrathins.
By the end of this year, there could be more than 100 laptops in the ultra-thin-light category. As a techie, I'm thrilled with these evolutionary devices, and I hope at least some are superior to the MacBook Air. But marketers face numerous challenges. They'll have to explain why their products are better (for some people, at least) without getting bogged down in technicalities such as SSDs.
Marketers will have to differentiate individual models within this new category and differentiate them from traditional laptops. In the future, as ultra-whatever products become increasingly popular, they might become the "traditional" laptops. To the horror of non-Apple manufacturers, many consumers could get so confused with all the marketing nuances that they might say, "I'll just buy an Air."
— Alan Reiter is president of Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing, a marketing consulting firm for wireless data businesses in the US and abroad.