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What’s So Ultra about Ultrabooks?

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As I’m watching the Year of the Ultrabook happen at CES 2012 I’m also watching what appears to be a re-trenching year in the mobile tech sector. Sure we’ve seen Tablets, we’ve seen lots of Ultrabooks, we’ve seen phones, and lots of talk about LTE and 4G. But, frankly, with a few exceptions, I think we’re seeing the results of some serious rethinking among a lot of manufacturers, as well as some bet hedging with eyes on Windows 8. We’re also seeing CES becoming less relevant than other trade shows. To be honest, CES 2012 as been lackluster at best.

The story everyone interested in seeing sales of new devices and gadgets wants to push is the Utlrabook story. And when you see headlines like this: 2011 Was the Second Worst Year for US PC Sales in History Except At Apple, you can get the sense of which way the wind is blowing.

Let’s face it, Tablets, following hot on the heels of Netbooks, caused some severe disruption in the computer industry. And where it hurt folks who make and market these things for a living was price. Netbooks closed some doors for the big dollar devices as it opened the eyes of consumers on the value proposition. Tablets followed suit. The magical $1000 and up price tag that makes margins a little more comfortable disappeared in many quarters, because there were cheaper (and smaller) alternatives that fit more into how consumers really spend their time computing.

But Apple held its own (and grew) with its high margin proposition. And, just like everyone played follow the leader with Tablets, it appears that the Ultrabook push is an attempt to not only follow the success of Apple’s Macbook Air, but also Apple’s business model.

The question is not will it work, the question is how well it will work and in the end that story will be told in two chapters. Price point will be chapter one. Given that every Ultrabook will be thin, bordering on light, and essentially offer many of the same features, it will all come down to price. Thin and pretty may be in, but consumers are going to focus on the price point. And from what I’m seeing OEMs think that the territory between $1000 and $1500 is the sweet spot. I’m not sure if that is a safe bet or not, but I tend to lean towards the not. The second chapter will be all about Windows 8. Let’s face it, Microsoft and an entire industry are planning, hoping, and working to make Windows 8 not just another big roll out, but a game changing roll out. Game changing in the hopes that influencers will talk about nothing else this summer and fall heading into the next holiday selling season.

Don’t get me wrong here. We’ve seen some interesting differentiation among some of the early Ultrabook candidates. And, I’m sure quite a few Ultrabooks will be sold with Windows 8 on them and I’m betting that this time next year we’ll be seeing a significant resurgence on everything associated with Windows 8 equipped hardware. But the real question will be how consumers conditioned to hardware prices below $700, will feel about prices that bring back flashbacks to the days before Netbooks and Tablets. After all, the Ultrabook phenomenon (if it becomes one) is really a marketing move more than it is anything else.

Warner Crocker is a professional theatre director, producer and playwright and also a Tablet PC enthusiast. He is also a Microsoft MVP for Tablet PCs. Send email to Warner. You can follow him on Twitter or Google+

1 Comment

  1. cu

    01/12/2012 at 5:12 pm

    Warner, I think you’re absolutely correct on pricing.  Consumer market pricing is not likely to rise above $1,000 without some very significant features, and I don’t think thin and light is likely to be enough for the broad range of the market.  I know Apple charges such prices, but this is where it is in Apple’s favor that it is not the major player in the notebook computer market.  Apple prices itself as a premium purchase, and that is where it stays, when it comes to computers.  

    This also is where Intel’s attempt to create a new device category is going to create a problem.  Everyone’s $1-1.5K device is similar.  That screams for market differentiation.  At some point this year, probably with the release of Windows 8, one or more companies are going to do thin, light, and $500-600, and it will be game over for most of the higher priced systems.

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