Intel sounds afraid of the future.
Speaking to PC World yesterday, Intel Product Manager Anand Kajshmanan and media spokesperson Alison Wesley set out in no uncertain terms what the Ultrabook means to Intel. It's all hidden in the name, it seems: "Ultra' means pinnacle, and we wanted the Ultrabook to be the pinnacle of everything that users have come to expect from their computing device." The they went on to explain where the entire concept came from: "We did extensive research into what users' expectations were for their mobile computing devices, and there were four things that really stood out." You may imagine that those four things are "Apple, MacBook, Air, iPad," given that Ultrabooks are really just Windows-powered versions of the Air, but Intel took pains to note "plethora of choice" was one of the characteristics.
If you've witnessed the visually intimidating array of very similar laptops on store shelves lately, you might doubt that "plethora of choice" is really what consumers lack. Intel's team also said Ultrabooks are driving down the entry price to this category, presumably undercutting Apple's $999 starting point. But suppliers aren't matching Apple's design quality or tech specs at lower prices, and Intel's had to specially lower the price of its mobile chips. And don't forget, the iPad starts at just $500.
Kajshmanan and Wesley danced nimbly around dissing Apple too much—Intel's inside every single new Mac—but they said the Air is a "great choice for someone who wants to invest in the Mac operating system," but added that, "really, with the Ultrabook, it's about offering all those things in the same device—the great responsiveness, the great battery life—and with an operating system that people have come to love over the years, as well as all the legacy applications that they would like to run."
In other words Windows is all they've known, despite the fact there've been arguably better alternatives around for years. Never mind that you can run Windows on a Mac, either natively or—shock horror—in a Window on OS X using software like Parallels. Sure, this costs a little because you have to actually pay Microsoft for a Windows license, but it's still a very viable option.
Then Intel's folks talked up a development of the Ultrabook they fully expect to grow to huge popularity soon: The clamshell touchscreen laptop. Essentially this is a half-tablet, half-notebook design where the laptop's display hinges all the way around to become a full touchscreen "tablet" PC. Think of it as a halfway house between tablets and laptops for people who can't let go of legacy laptop uses because of preference or some other reason, but do want to sample the tablet experience. Microsoft's upcoming tablet-friendly Windows 8 OS may be a great incentive for this sort of design. Which is, basically, a refresh of the old "tablet PC" design that Bill Gates got all excited about a decade ago, but which never took off the ground thanks to expense and a touch-unfriendly Windows implementation.
For fun, here's a video of one concept that shows you what this might look like—ironically on a reimagined MacBook:
Intel, despite moves toward making truly powerful mobile-friendly CPUs, agrees with us that the PC is dying. That, in fact, the laptop has, with the Ultrabook, reached its "pinnacle" of design—there's precious few innovations left to take it in a wholly new direction, unless you sort of turn it into a tablet PC. And that's what Intel's worried about. Tablet PCs, currently selling by the tens of millions, are powered by ARM chips.