Ultrabooks: A new era for PCs or Wintel innovation bankruptcy?

For the first time in years, PCs grabbed the spotlight at CES 2012. Ultrabooks were everywhere, but was it an innovation win or an innovation failure?

Photo credit: James Martin/CNET

Among the 30-foot displays of massive TVs and the now endless parade of new smartphones and tablets, it's easy to forget that CES is also the PC industry's biggest and most important event of the year and has been for over a decade since the demise of Comdex. At CES 2012, PCs grabbed more of the spotlight than they have for years by focusing all their energy around one new concept: Ultrabooks.

Intel, Microsoft, and all the major PC makers banged the drum, tons of new products were unveiled, and grandiose statements were unleashed about this being the beginning of something g new and revolutionary for the PC.

It's the biggest noise the PC industry has made at CES since the launch of the Tablet PC a decade ago. But, the big question is whether this is real innovation that will change the way people use technology or if it's just a bunch of trumped up marketing chatter to get people excited about buying laptops again (coming from a collection of companies whose PCs are desperately losing sales to tablets).

At Intel's CES press conference on January 9, the chipmaker lined up rows of Ultrabooks from hardware makers around the world and claimed that it is "leading the industry to re-invent the personal computing experience with the new category of Ultrabook devices. Shaped by extensive user research, Ultrabook devices will increasingly give people the most complete and satisfying, no-compromise and secure computing experience in one sleek and portable device."

Mooly Eden, vice president of Intel's PC division, poked fun at the audience and entertained them with his passionate pitch for Ultrabooks. But, it was pretty much the same Ultrabook stump speech that he's been giving since last fall at the Intel IDF event, where he said:

"Not since the introduction of Intel Centrino technology more than 8 years ago have we witnessed such a fundamental transformation of personal computing. Today's devices powered by our second generation Intel Core processors are giving people a personal computing experience that they've never had before and we won't stop there. We know people desire and demand more from their computers — to create, consume and share — which is why we have challenged ourselves and the industry to make Ultrabook the most adaptable, complete and satisfying device."

Fortunately, at CES, Intel did show off three new forward-looking advances that it's working on:

  1. A concept codenamed Nikiski that is a transparent glass palm rest that serves as touch-based interface where the entire palm rest of the Ultrabook becomes a touchpad that can distinguish between your palm brushing it and your finger touching it to interact with the screen; when the laptop is closed, the other side of the palm rest provides at-a-glance information to data in your laptop
  2. A gesture-based interface similar to Microsoft Kinect that will not only come to Ultrabooks but will be used on other types of PC products like public kiosks (that's going to get some funny looks)
  3. A voice recognition interface for Ultrabooks that is being developed in partnership with Dragon Naturally Speaking and will not require a headset

I have to applaud Intel's focus on user experience and I'm thrilled to see the company trying to innovate with different interface ideas. "We're getting close to enough compute power to enable this natural user interface," said Eden.

However, none of the innovative concepts that Intel showed off at CES 2012 were available in any of the Ultrabooks that were being unveiled or promoted at CES. As a result, most of what was being shown off at CES was just a bunch of thin laptops.

Even worse, the Ultrabooks from three of the world's top PC makers — Hewlett-Packard, Acer, and Dell — are shameless knock-offs of the MacBook Air, which first debuted four years ago this month.

I remember when the first MacBook Air came out and TechRepublic did its in-depth Cracking Open of the device. TechRepublic's Head Technology Editor Bill Detwiler and I looked at each other and both said, "This is the future of laptops." Neither of us wanted one at that point, because it was too expensive and too underpowered, but we saw the potential for an ultra-slim laptop that boots in seconds and instantly wakes from sleep. Once people saw this, it would be the kind of laptop everyone wanted.

The next generation MacBook Air models that came out in 2010 and 2011 had a lot more power, a refined design, and finally got the price down to where they started at $1000. As a result, they've become a huge hit. While the overall laptop market dropped by 8.7% in Q4 2011 (hurt by low supplies of disc drives but also people flocking to tablets), the MacBook Air sales were reportedly up by 20%.

This is why Intel, Microsoft, and the PC hardware companies are falling all over themselves to get Ultrabooks to market as quickly as possible. The problem is that nearly all of them look alike and, even worse, they look like bad copies of the MacBook Air. There are some exceptions, like the Samsung Series 9 and the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga, but those are few and far between. With all of the smart people there are at all of these companies, I find it impossible to believe that the best they can do is make bad knockoffs of the MacBook Air that aren't even much less expensive.

It's as if all the big computer companies have declared innovation bankruptcy.

While Intel's forward-looking ideas about bringing voice, multi-touch, and gesture controls to Ultrabooks have promise, the chipmaker is going to have to have to coordinate closely with Microsoft to nail the implementation so that it makes sense for users. The innovation Intel pushed the most at CES 2012 was Nikiski. While the full multitouch palmrest makes sense (as long as it truly ignores input from your palms when your typing), the other half of Nikiski, the mini touchscreen for checking emails and social updates, is what I call "demoware." It looks great in a demo or a slideshow but makes no sense in the real world. My favorite example of this was Google Wave. Most of the tech press went nuts over it when it was introduced. I put it on my list of the worst tech products of 2009 and asked, "Why on earth would anyone want to use that?" With Nikiski's mini touchscreen, I have the same question. If I want to get at data on my laptop, I'll flip open my laptop. If I want at-a-glance information on a smaller touchscreen then I'll just whip out my smartphone.

Of Nikiski, Eden said, "Don't even think about copying it because we already patented it." I don't think they're going to have to worry about that.

The bottom line is that Intel, Microsoft, and all of their hardware partners are going to have do better than this. They need to emerge from innovation bankruptcy and do a lot more than just rubber-stamping Apple's stuff. Otherwise, why should people buy a knockoff of the MacBook Air when they can get the real thing for about the same price? Other than for the dwindling population of people who are heavily invested in Windows desktop software, that's going to increasingly be a tough sell for the Wintel coalition.

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This is a big topic for 2012 and we're going to be debating it in depth as part of the ZDNet's Great Debate. On Tuesday I'll be moderating the debate "Can Wintel win the Ultrabook market?" between Ed Bott and Robin Harris. Come join the converstation.

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Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.

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