Can Wintel win the Ultrabook market?

Summary:Intel-powered Ultrabooks were everywhere at CES 2012. But can they beat Apple at its own game?

Ed Bott

Ed Bott

Yes

or

No

Robin Harris

Robin Harris

Best Argument: Yes

The moderator has delivered a final verdict.

Opening Statements

A recipe for success

Ed Bott: Apple has been kicking ass in the high-end portable PC market over the last couple years. The MacBook Air has become deservedly popular for its exquisite engineering. But that’s all about to change. The pieces are finally clicking together for PC OEMs to make small, light, great-looking portable PCs at commodity prices. That is historically when the Apple versus Wintel battles get interesting. In this economy price is more of an issue than ever, and economies of scale should drive the price of ultrabooks down quickly.

I predict ultrabooks will be a big hit with PC buyers who like the MacBook Air form factor but prefer Windows to OS X. The combination of genuinely interesting hardware and a mature, smoother, more reliable Windows should narrow or even erase the design gap between Apple’s MacBook Air and those of the top Wintel OEMs. Historically, that’s a recipe for success.

Another profitless bit of me-too-ism

Robin Harris: Apple has re-defined music players, smart phones, tablet computers and, with the MacBook Air, the notebook computer. They've also gobbled up the lion's share of the profits and will do so again in Ultrabooks.Apple dominates over-$1,000 PC revenue with a 90% share. They dominate tablets likewise. The last 2 MacBook Air models have been a huge hit. Apple's strategy is to win profits, not volume.

Now, aided by an Intel war chest estimated at $300-$500 million, the PC vendors are striking back with the same tired "cheaper, not better" strategy that lost them the profitable markets segments in high-end PCs. It's another profitless bit of me-too-ism by the 20th century anachronism known as Wintel.

Wintel will lose the Ultrabook battle.

The Rebuttal

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Thanks for joining the debate

    Ed and Robin will post their closing arguments tomorrow and I will declare a winner on Thursday. Between now and then, don't forget to cast your vote and jump into the discussion below to post your thoughts on this topic.

    Posted by Jason Hiner

  • Great Debate Moderator

    What's your prediction for Ultrabooks?

    Will we still be talking about Ultrabooks at CES 2013 or will they just evolve and take over the PC laptop category? If Ultrabooks don't succeed, would it spell trouble for the Wintel ecosystem?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Can I offer a wishlist instead?

    We are in strange and uncertain times, both in terms of tech and in the economy. This is an obvious direction for OEMs to go with small notebooks, and the ones I have seen should do well in the market. In my experience, people (real people, not tech reviewers or bloggers) see these new designs and like them. In many cases they're using Windows 7 for the first time so they get that experience as well. Predictions? Who knows. But I do know what I would like to see. Here's my wishlist: Fewer models. Please, OEMs, take your best shot. Give me a small number of choices for CPU and SSD size, but don't complicate the rest. Less crapware, please. I bought the Samsung Series 9 from the Microsoft Store, so it came with Microsoft Signature. I cannot tell you how pleasant it is to not have a bunch of weird utilities and services running at all times, and I didn't have to uninstall anything. Don't cut corners. I know there's a tendency to shave quality of components to get prices down. I hope that doesn't happen here. If Intel does one thing well, it should be to preserve the quality of the Ultrabook brand.

    Ed Bott

    I am for Yes

    The die is cast

    The industry is on notice that consumers want thin, light, and long battery life notebooks. Ultrabooks only look good today because current Wintel notebooks are so clunky. As the iPad continues to eat the cheap notebook's lunch, Ultrabooks will be the only game in town for Wintel vendors. The real Ultrabooks problem isn't pricing, it's quality. Like netbooks, cheapo Ultrabooks will poison the well, destroy the brand, and then price doesn't matter. For most casual users, tablets are a better deal. Unless Intel and MS insist on certain standards - beyond what they ask today - their margin-starved partners will turn the clean, crisp Ultrabooks concept into a mush of cheap, poorly thought out, act-alike machines. So no, Ultrabooks won't be important in 2013's CES. Everyone will be chasing the Apple TV or whatever the next great thing they've come up with.

    Robin Harris

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Will we see a desktop version?

    What about desktops? Will we see an Ultrabook-like movement for minimal desktops like the Mac Mini?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Desktops? I vaguely remember them...

    The definition of desktop is changing. It used to mean tower. Now the only people who buy tower PCs are enterprises and hobbyists and gamers (and cheapskates). If there's a desktop equivalent to the Ultrabook, it would be an all-in-one. Like the iMac, it's evolution at work. In some situations consumers want something with a reasonably large screen in a fixed location with as few wires as possible. It's about time for something as sleek as an Ultrabook to appear in that form factor. In the Mac Mini sized devices, we'll see appliances, not full-strength PCs.

    Ed Bott

    I am for Yes

    Desktops are a niche market

    The Mac Mini hasn't caught fire with consumers the way the MacBook Air has, for a number of reasons. So Wintel doesn't have anything to chase. Apple has been selling a steadily increasing proportion of their Macs as notebooks. That can't continue forever, but its obvious that sync technology hasn't kept up with customer needs, on Mac or Wintel, so a single machine is preferable. As Moore's Law continues, you'll be able to get even more power in a mini-sized box. But for most of us tower users, power isn't the only issue. Expansion, ECC memory, robust quality and investment protection are also important.

    Robin Harris

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    And the price tag?

    Let's talk price. Ed referred to the fact that price will be the lever that Ultrabooks use to beat the MacBook Air in volume, but most of these Ultrabooks aren't that much cheaper than the MacBook Air yet, right? Will they get cheaper soon? If not, will lots of people just opt for the real thing instead of a knock-off?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    The real thing has a Windows keyboard

    Well, for starters, I reject the premise that the MacBook Air is "the real thing." It's a fine OS X machine. But as I've demonstrated before, it's not optimized to run Windows. You pay a penalty if you use Boot Camp and a different penalty if you use virtualization, not to mention the actual dollars you spend on the Windows license and virtualization software. That's literally a $300 charge if you pay for the licensing. MacBook Airs have gotten about as cheap as they can get. There's still lots of room to squeeze out costs in the Ultrabook category. For someone who prefers Windows and uses it most or all of the time, an Ultrabook will be a much better deal. In this economy, even a $100 difference is profound.

    Ed Bott

    I am for Yes

    Something can always be made cheaper - and someone will buy it

    Ancient marketing wisdom: win on price, lose on price. The fact is that Apple has the largest share of All-in-one market with iMacs, and the same dynamics there apply to Ultrabooks. Apple is perfectly willing to compete on price when it suits them. They could easily drop the entry MacBook Air price to 899 or less - they have the volume - but they won't until they see good reason. I know a number of people who bought MacBook Airs and then installed Windows. The best hardware and their preferred OS. Sure, it costs a bit more - 10%-15% - but for power users that's a niggle. And don't forget: Macs retain their value much better than Wintel boxes. I sold a 5 year old Mac Pro for $2k - you can hardly buy a new Wintel for that. Check Craigslist: lots of 3-5 year old Macs selling for $500+. Ed may like this or that Wintel Ultrabook, but my 2010 MacBook Air will be worth more than any of this years crop in 3 years. Wintel is lucky that few buyers take a true lifecycle cost view.

    Robin Harris

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Who makes the best Ultrabooks?

    Which PC manufacturer do you think has the best Ultrabook designs and why?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Again, it's early

    I think you have to spend time with a machine before you can make judgments like that. In the case of the Samsung, I continue to be impressed every time I pick it up. I'm looking forward to seeing it in other form factors, The ASUS ZenBook looks like one I could spend some serious time with. As a very satisfied user of other high-end Dell PCs I am really looking forward to seeing the new XPS 13 next month.

    Ed Bott

    I am for Yes

    Apple, of course.

    If Microsoft were smart, they'd offer special deals to MacBook Air owners on Windows 7/8. Install it using Bootcamp or partner with Parallels or VMware and offer a special discount. Think of it as a stealth OEM deal. I use Win7 with Parallels 7 and it works very well. Previous versions of Parallels and VMware's Fusion, not so much.

    Robin Harris

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    What about design and innovation?

    What's your take on the innovation, or lack thereof, from manufacturers in following up the MacBook Air design? Are there too many close copycats or are there good examples of useful innovations?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    It's early

    It's still early to form judgments, but the OEMs have gotten off to a pretty good start, I think. I like the look I've seen in the design of some devices. The new glass HP machine, brushed aluminum on others including te ASUS ZenBook. My wife has a Samsung Series 9. I think it does a very clever job of exposing ports. She thinks it looks very sexy but wishes it came in a color other than black. I actually see a boring sameness in MacBook designs these days. I like the idea of some different choices. And I also like the idea that the machines are designed to work with Windows. That will make even more of a difference with Windows 8, I suspect.

    Ed Bott

    I am for Yes

    Wintel can't afford innovation

    Asus, Lenovo and HP don't control their platform, so their ability to innovate is limited. Intel has a conversion experience every few years and claim that now they get the low-power issue, but then they go back to their power-sucking ways. Microsoft is making a good effort with Windows 8 but that won't save the day. Real innovation will be things like fuel cells, 3d gestures, improved mechanical design and voice control. Apple is working hard on all of these, buying companies when they need too, and investing in creating great user products. Wintel vendor, other then MS and Intel, can't afford this, so they don't. The most laughable "innovation" is the touchscreen. This has been a known-stupid idea in human factors circles for 30 years. Google "gorilla arm" and see for yourself.

    Robin Harris

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Is reinventing laptops the right strategy?

    It's tablets that are eating into laptop sales from the bottom up, so why does it make sense for all of these vendors to focus on reinventing laptops instead of just talking about tablets or hybrid tablets like the Lenovo Yoga?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    There's still plenty of demand for laptops

    Tablets are great for lots of scenarios. OK for other scenarios, and unusable in a few scenarios. I would not want to write a book on a tablet, for example. It's hard for me to imagine a world where a tablet is your only computing device. Most people will end up with both a tablet and a portable PC. They still want the classic notebook integrated with a keyboard and a pointing device. In fact, with the power of the hardware in most of the Ultrabooks I've seen, you're able to do what would have been workstation-class stuff just a few years ago. At very reasonable prices. Add a USB 3.0 docking station and you can turn an Ultrabook into a desktop. Unplug it and you're mobile.

    Ed Bott

    I am for Yes

    Double down on the tablet fiasco?

    Wintel's usual suspects have tried and failed to replicate the iPad for a very good reason: you can't just slap together a bunch of commodity parts and a half-baked OS and get the seamless iPad experience. So of course, reinvent the notebook. But the bigger issue is that the growth that fueled the PC industry for 40 years has ceased. As a result we don't need all the vendors we have today. There's blood in the water and many of today's PC vendors won't be around in 5 years.

    Robin Harris

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    What's the big deal with Ultrabooks?

    Why do Ultrabooks matter and why is the Wintel coalition putting all of their eggs in this basket?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Has the post-PC era started yet?

    Tablets are taking over a lot of the functions that people used to buy a big clunky cheap laptop for. In 2012, there are only two categories of consumer PCs: notebooks and all-in-ones. (Enterprises are the only ones who buy tower desktops anymore. And me.) The small, light form factor is highly mobile, which gives it the widest appeal among people who need something more than a tablet.

    Ed Bott

    I am for Yes

    Fear is a great motivator

    Wintel is driven by fear, not the desire to excite customers. And the fear is that Apple will own the thin/light notebook market they way they own the All-in-one, tablet and smartphone markets. Which they will: Wintel is already back to competing on price - cutting their margins, cheapening their product and cutting their investments in design and technology. You have to go back to the 1980s to see when that worked before. People expect more now - thanks to Apple.

    Robin Harris

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Is this what all laptops will look like?

    Ultrabooks are clearly inspired by the MacBook Air, which was released four years ago and has gotten really popular the last two years. Two years from now, will all laptops look like the MacBook Air and Ultrabooks?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    It's evolution

    I don't think this is a conscious attempt to clone the MacBook Air. Rather, it's the inevitable response to the demand to assemble a bunch of components whose size is defined by ergonomics in many cases. With a keyboard, a trackpad, a display, and various ports, you're going to end up at a certain size that's about as small as you can go and still be usable. Apple got there early with the MacBook Air. It's taken the Wintel world a few extra years to put those pieces together as commodities. If, as Robin argues, the definition of "winning" is measured by profits, then of course Apple wins. They've staked out the high end. But the competition can do better in the middle than they are today.

    Ed Bott

    I am for Yes

    The Macs will be even better looking

    Apple's business model supports continued innovation and first in the market technology. Simply put, Apple's machines make profits that support continued improvement and Wintel machines don't. As a result, the Wintel vendors have to wait for a new technology - or a knockoff - to be commoditized so they can package it up and resell it. The Wintel Ultrabooks will look like last years MacBook Airs. Expect Apple to keep innovating in design and features while Wintel struggles to keep up.

    Robin Harris

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Is this Netbooks, part II?

    How can Ultrabooks succeed where Netbooks failed?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Why did Windows 7 succeed where Windows Vista failed?

    Netbooks were the Vista of hardware. A good idea, but poorly executed, and delivered before the hardware was ready. The result wasn't pretty. Moore's Law really helped here. For five years, the Wintel ecosystem has been working on miniaturizing the components that make up an Ultrabook. They're small enough to fit in this package, which in turn is about as small as you can make something that's still a usable portable PC. I've used netbooks and I've used Ultrabooks. There's no comparison, thank goodness.

    Ed Bott

    I am for Yes

    Lieutenant, your men are already dead

    They can't. In any market of largely undifferentiated products - the same OS, processors, form factor - where consumers mostly buy on price, it is always a race to the bottom. Where can I cut my quality to make a buck? Whoever thought 8 pound notebooks with 90 minute battery lives were a good idea? The fact is that you can't build an MBA competitor for much less than Apple does. You can build something that sort of looks like it, but it you want the quality, you have to pay. And Wintel has conditioned consumers to buy on price, not quality. There's a lot of industry wishful thinking - "Windows 8 will save us!" - that ignores a basic reality: Apple owns its core technologies and is always aggressively searching out more great ideas, investing heavily in them, and then bringing them out when they make a real difference to the customer. So if the definition of success is a majority of unit sales, then yes, Wintel will win. But if it is a majority of profit, then NO, Wintel has already lost.

    Robin Harris

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Is the "Ultrabook" a good thing?

    Alright, let's get this party started. In terms of the exposure game, Ultrabooks made a big splash at CES 2012. Is it a good thing that the Wintel ecosystem is all pushing in the same direction on one concept that computer buyers can understand?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    It's all about focus

    The Ultrabook push and a crappy economy have finally given the PC industry the incentive to focus. And they realize that there's tremendous demand for small, light, powerful PCs. The benefit is twofold: first, with a common platform, PC makers can compete on design and support, and consumers can make easier comparisons. Second, they reach economies of scale. But more than anything, they get to focus on producing one device in this category instead of 10.

    Ed Bott

    I am for Yes

    Chasing the leader is a good thing?

    It's always a good thing when vendors recognize what customers want and give it to them. The fact that Apple came out with the first MBA in 2008 and it is only now - almost 5 years later - that Wintel sees the wisdom of the MBA form factor shows just how truly dysfunctional Wintel is. It was known almost 20 years ago that customers liked thin, large screen and lightweight notebooks. Only Apple has consistently tried to give users what they want.

    Robin Harris

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Mic check

    Are both of my debaters online?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Hello world

    I'm here. With appreciation for the irony, I am typing my comments on a Mac desktop. I'm doing all my research and chatting on a desktop PC running Windows 7. And I've got a Windows 8 tablet as a backup. ;)

    Ed Bott

    I am for Yes

    yes

    Well, I could bring up W7 pro in Parallels, but I won't.

    Robin Harris

    I am for No

Closing Statements

It’s about time

Ed Bott

Four years ago, when Apple introduced the MacBook Air, it cost a fortune and it got mostly terrible reviews. It took Apple several more years to get it right, thanks mostly to improvements in processor and chipset design by ... Intel.

It's taken Intel's Windows customers a bit longer to get their act together, but the Ultrabook category represents an impressive step in the right direction: a commodity product that enables hardware makers to create small, light, powerful PCs that are optimized to run Windows.

I have no doubt that Apple will continue to make huge profits by selling its small notebook as a luxury item to the top of the market.

I also have no doubt that Ultrabook prices will continue to drop, because that's what the Wintel ecosystem does best.

Thankfully, this year Windows users will finally have a range of choices in an obviously desirable form factor. That's what competition is about.

 

A different view of win

Robin Harris

Many have a different view of "win" than I do. PCs and Ultrabooks are low-profit losers. The Wintel companies chasing the Ultrabook market - really, the MacBook Air market - can't win from a business perspective.

Manufacturers that ship a lot of product and eke out a small profit can't innovate fast enough. Ed conceded the point: "For five years, the Wintel ecosystem has been working on miniaturizing the components that make up an Ultrabook."

Just as Apple is the #1 supplier of all-in-one systems - the iMac - and surely the most profitable, it is clear that they will remain the #1 supplier of Ultrabook-class notebooks. And as in smartphones, they will win the lion's share of the profits, enabling continued investment and innovation that Wintel can only dream about.

That's a win in my book.

Price matters

Jason Hiner

This one was almost a draw. Of course, we don't do draws in the Great Debate. Robin is right that the Ultrabook movement hasn't really shown us a whole lot of innovation so far. It's mostly a lot of uninspired MacBook Air knock-offs.

Still, price does matter and I agree with Ed that the Ultrabook vendors are going to aggressively drop the price of their laptops in 2012 and undercut Apple. That will leave the high end of the market (and most of the profits) to Apple, while putting Ultrabooks in the hands of a lot more buyers. So, when we ask who wins this market, it depends on how we define winning.

I'm going to side with the majority of consumers, who will ultimately get a much better laptop than their last one when they buy an Ultrabook for under $1,000. That means Ed gets the nod.

Topics: Great Debate

About

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 upcoming book, Follow the Geeks (bit.ly/ftgeeks).

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