Just when many enterprise IT leaders felt familiar with the tablet marketplace and began to understand the interplay between tablets and more traditional laptops, tech manufacturers have brought us the “Ultrabook,” an Intel-driven (and wholly-owned trademark) laptop-like form factor.

On paper, the Ultrabook seems like a netbook and traditional desktop were combined to deliver a slim, long-life, reasonably powered laptop. Ultrabooks promise fairly thin and light computing, aiming to address the perceived shortcomings of netbooks that had child-sized keyboards, squint-inducing screens, and underpowered processors.

I’ve wondered how the Windows platform would answer Apple’s MacBook Air, and the Ultrabook form-factor is a full frontal assault. On the positive side, the Ultrabook platform addresses consumer and enterprise demands for a reasonably light and powerful platform that can last from JFK to LAX with more than a couple of minute’s battery to spare.

But how do Ultrabooks compare to tablets? I believe that Intel has been unable to grow beyond its desktop/laptop roots and is simply trying to rehash the netbook format while working out the kinks on its tablet and smartphone chips. On a larger scale, a common complaint of tablets is their lack of a familiar OS, keyboard, and capabilities for “real” computing. So, a quick-booting, full-featured laptop that comes within ounces of a tablet rather than pounds might make a great deal of sense for some users and enterprises.

Tastes great or less filling?

The above tagline was from a marketing campaign around the unquantifiable merits of whether it was more important that a light beer tastes great or is less filling. Perhaps the most exciting thing about Ultrabooks is that they address some of the gaps of a traditional computing device vs. a tablet with a specialized operating system. I’ve long held that the critical differentiators between tablets and traditional laptops were boot speed, light weight, battery life, and low cost.

While there were laptops that addressed a couple of these factors, they would frequently slight another. Frequent travelers could get thin and light laptops if they were willing to write an extremely large check. Fast boot and low cost were reasonably easy to acquire for people who were willing to settle for a boat anchor.

Ultrabooks don’t break any new ground, but they seem to win on all these critical fronts, while maintaining a reasonable price point. Rather than defending the choice of a traditional tablet or laptop, the Ultrabook shifts the argument more toward how the device is used, allowing a compelling argument to be made for either device.

Tech that supports process

Except for very rare cases, a technology tool should never drive a business process; rather, the technology should enable a process to execute more quickly and effectively. Essentially, Ultrabooks eliminate some of the quantitative arguments for using tablets — like light weight and longer battery — and allow one to focus on the business problem being addressed rather than working around technical shortcomings.

While Ultrabooks certainly will not resolve the debate over whether tablets or more traditional devices are the best tools in the enterprise, they make an evolutionary step toward addressing some of the fundamental benefits of tablets. Whether Intel has an ulterior motive or the “Ultrabook” distinction is helpful to the discussion is debatable, but this platform certainly gives us more choice in addressing enterprise technology challenges.