For at least seven years running, Intel has been working to specify a form factor for lightweight, mobile computing devices. No, not tablets. As early as 2005, the first whispers of a joint Intel/Microsoft specification were bandied about, where Intel specifies the internals, and they supply the plastic. At the time, insiders warned that while manufacturers would be eager to rally behind an all-in-one mobile PC specification, consumers would not embrace it until 1) its battery lasted at least as long as the movie it's playing; 2) it could reasonably connect to other devices outside a radius of 50 feet; 3) one could afford it without a second mortgage.
Now, the year after the Apple iPad's unprecedented rout of the tablet market, analysts are saying Intel may finally have the magic formula. Undaunted by the fact that ultrabooks, as they're now being called, only sold 1 million units worldwide last year, according to estimates from hardware analysis firm IHS, the firm is holding true to its ultrabook sales projections for 2015 - projections that assume a 342% annual growth rate.
Compare that to about 5%, maybe less, for the entire PC market. The entry of Apple's iPad into the tablet market - which by anyone's measure was an historical success - resulted in a 42% annual growth rate for tablets. For Intel and the PC industry to meet IHS' goal, it would need to overcome not only the sluggish PC sales numbers, but financial analysts' projections of tapered growth in mobile device sales for 2012, and the continued sluggish global economy.
As IHS Research Director Len Jelinek said last November, "With the introduction of the ultrabook, the computing industry is poised for yet another paradigm shift. The technology now exists that actually could bring about a convergence of major mobile devices. If an attractive price point can be achieved and the consumer deems this a must-have product, the entire semiconductor manufacturing supply chain could rapidly reorient itself to serve the fast-growing ultrabook market."
If that "if" statement sounds awfully familiar, it's because we've been in this situation several times before, most recently at this time last year - naturally, the week before the annual CES conference in Las Vegas. The trumpeting was being done that time by Qualcomm, whose Snapdragon platform had found success in smartphones, and was slated to anchor the system-on-a-chip (SoC) solution Qualcomm was planning for a form factor it called "smartbook."
That didn't last long. Last September, Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs publicly declared the smartbook idea dead, killed by the iPad - even though smartbooks would have had the hard keyboards that some consumers still say they want.
Teaser video of an HP Spectre ultrabook, posted to YouTube by way of The Verge.
This time around, analysts believe Intel has a stronger hand to play, on account of several new factors:
1. Replacing smaller, cheaper Atom processors in the Ultrabook specification with fully-fledged Core i5 units, which consumers will appreciate as more than just scaled-up smartphone chips.
2. An improved microarchitecture around multithreading, code-named "Haswell," which Intel believes is the key to achieving greater power efficiency while better battery technologies remain in the laboratory.
3. Greater attention to sensor devices using microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) - for example, accelerometers and gyroscopes. These are standard equipment for today's tablets - even the least expensive e-readers like B&N's Nook - but have been omitted from Intel's specs until recently. IHS believes power sensors will be added to the MEMS mix, in order for ultrabooks to maintain Intel's stringent requirements for lower power consumption.
4. Reduced reliance on DRAM for local memory, with Intel specifying a 4 GB maximum. The increased availability of cloud storage, IHS believes, will lead to a diminution of the value proposition for traditional notebook PCs, and may even help drive consumers toward ultrabooks as a way to take advantage of cloud storage used by their office PCs.
5. Windows 8, which was intentionally redesigned to look more like an operating system designed for multitouch mobile devices. Consumers openly rejected Intel's and Microsoft's first round of "ultra-mobile PCs" (UMPCs) for a multitude of reasons, perhaps the largest one being that they weren't interested in lugging Windows XP around with them.
6. The creation of a $300 million "Ultrabook fund" providing capital for OEMs that plan to develop Ultrabook designs, in order to help them keep the street price below a $1,000 mark that many analysts say is way too high anyway (the magic price point today may be $700 - $750).
Evidence that Intel is building a renewed initiative around ultrabooks for 2012 surfaced last week, with the creation of a "community page" designed to point to specifications for power efficiency, battery life, and energy usage (three categories that other manufacturers might organize under the same heading). As of today, the documents under those categories are dated as early as 2007 - some reference changes to be expected once Microsoft eventually releases Windows Vista.
The most likely explanation is that these are placeholders. Next week, during Microsoft's final CES keynote, it is expected to demonstrate a Windows 8 beta (more evolved than the current Technology Preview) running not just on tablets without keyboards but on power-efficient, portable PCs. Although Microsoft is not participating in Intel's ultrabook specification this time (the "Origami" affair struck a sour chord between the two), Intel Core i5-based ultrabooks are expected to be headliners from HP, Dell, Acer (whose PC sales nosedived last year), Toshiba, and Lenovo.
In a post to its corporate blog last October, Lenovo made the case for a form factor with the battery life of a tablet, but without forcing customers to sacrifice the hard keyboard. "Where the Ultrabook will land in a market becoming increasingly crowded with new devices is yet to be determined," a Lenovo spokesperson wrote. "But given the technology's capacity to traverse the functions of laptops and tablets, it seems destined to meet the demands of many."