Intel Bets Heavily On Ultrabook Success At IDF


Intel pitches ultrabooks as next wave, not tablets, for users demanding performance and energy efficiency

Intel is aggressively pushing its ultrabook concept as the next big transformation in a PC industry that has experienced slowing sales, leading to references to the post-PC era, but which Intel says has a strong future.

However, the officials understand that they will need buy-in from a myriad of industry players, from OEMs and original design manufacturers (ODMs) to software developers and, ultimately, users. To that end, the giant chip maker has made ultrabooks a central theme at this year’s Intel Developer Forum (IDF) here.

During his IDF keynote, Intel president and CEO Paul Otellini said that soon the ultrabook “will become the new norm”.

Third Epoch Transformation

Mooly Eden (pictured), vice president and general manager of Intel’s PC Client Group, continued the drumbeat during his address, calling ultrabooks the third transformational moment in the history of the PC, following the transition of computers from business tools to personal devices in 1995, and the move from desktops to notebooks with Intel’s Centrino technology in 2003.

“So far … the response from the market [to ultrabooks] has been phenomenal,” Eden said during a question-and-answer session with journalists and analysts here after his keynote. “It’s an evolution we want to drive. A lot of innovation is needed, but I think it is inevitable.”

Intel executives see ultrabooks as very thin-and-light notebooks that offer tablet-like capabilities – long battery life, constant connection, instant-on and, eventually, touch capabilities – with the advantages of traditional notebooks. The first of the ultrabooks – from vendors like Asus, Acer, Lenovo and Toshiba – will be based on the current 2nd Generation Core “SandyBridge” processors and are due out this fall.

However, it will be with the next two iterations of Intel’s chip technology – first, with “Ivy Bridge” next year, and then “Haswell” in 2013 – that the real benefits of ultrabooks will play out, according to Eden. That will be when Intel makes significant gains in performance, energy efficiency and security.

During his keynote, Eden outlined many new capabilities in power management and security that will come along with the 22-nanometer Ivy Bridge chips – which will hold 1.48 billion transistors that are built from Intel’s Tri-Gate architecture – including Intel’s identity protection and anti-theft technologies, which enable users to safely conduct transactions online and to remotely kill or wipe clean a stolen or lost system.

Noting that components will also have to improve to meet energy and performance demands,Eden also introduced Panel Self-Refresh, a display technology that reduces the number of screen refreshes when the ultrabook is idle. The technology will save energy over current LVD panels, he said.

During the event, he also showed off some ODM prototype ultrabooks running on Ivy Bridge chips, as well as one powered by a Haswell chip. He also touted the work Intel and Microsoft have done together with the ultrabook concept. Microsoft’s upcoming Windows 8 will run on mobile devices like tablets, and officials for both companies say it will work well with Intel-based systems.

Fuelling Future Growth

Ultrabooks will be the systems that fuel the future of the PC market, according to Eden. Despite slowing sales numbers that caused IDC and Gartner to lower their 2011 forecasts,Eden was enthusiastic about the market, noting that vendors sell a million PCs every day and that there are more than 1.5 billion being used in the world. He also noted the huge uptake in emerging markets.

Analysts at IDF had a positive reaction to the ultrabook concept. Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT Research, said ultrabooks are a natural evolution for Intel, which for several years has been moving down this path of greater performance and energy efficiency in smaller devices.

“Overall, I think the ultrabook strategy makes great sense,” King said. “The remarkable uptake of smart phones and tablets indicates a significant shift in user behaviour toward mobile computing. In other words, it’s a market trend that Intel can’t afford to ignore.”

However, since Intel executives first talked about ultrabooks at Computex in May, a key issue has been around pricing. Intel sees ultrabooks as being less than 0.8 inches thick and priced at less than $1,000. Some OEMs reportedly have said it will be difficult to bring in ultrabooks at that price, though Intel last month introduced a $300 million fund designed to help businesses that are building hardware and software solutions for ultrabooks. In addition, Intel has introduced a reference architecture to help OEMs and ODMs bring down the cost.

“Pricing pressures will continue to be an issue, not just for Intel but also for their vendor partners,” King said. “One effect of the iPad has been to demonstrate to consumers that $500 can buy them something pretty cool – a point reflected in the inability of competitors to crack Apple’s market dominance. Beating Apple will require vendors to deliver something notably better or cheaper than the iPad. If ultrabooks are exceptionally better, they could inspire consumers to dig deeper in their pockets.”

Eden said during his keynote that “the challenge … is to bring the price down”. Eden would not talk about what he expected the final price to be, noting that that is the OEM’s job. However, Eden said he was optimistic.

“I think you’re going to be surprised at how affordable [ultrabooks] will be,” he said.

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