First released in early 2008, Apple’s MacBook Air helped usher in a new era of ultralight portable computers. Other portable computers had been smaller and lighter, but few offered the winning combination of light weight, speedy boot time, thin form factor, and enough processing power to serve as a suitable replacement for a larger notebook that can accomplish most office tasks. Apple has refined and updated the MacBook Air several times over the past few years and continues to have sales success with the model. Digitimes Research pointed out that Apple was the only PC manufacturer to see its notebook sales increase in Q4 2012, selling 1.2 million units for the quarter.

But the MacBook Air isn’t the only Apple product making waves in the PC industry. Thanks to the consumerization of IT, smartphones and tablets have been flooding into businesses at unprecedented rates, as employees begin to shift more of their workloads from traditional desktop and notebook PCs to tablets, smartphones, and ultralight notebooks. A recent survey of more than 2,500 Windows IT Pro readers revealed that close to 80 percent of respondents were allowing and/or supporting tablets in the office.

 

Enter the Ultrabook

Although the consumerization of IT can’t be ignored—and some forward-thinking IT departments have found ways to support and encourage bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies in the workplace—having employees use their own devices for work isn’t an option for many companies and industries, including those that have to operate under stringent auditing and compliance regulations.

To add insult to injury, business laptops are often viewed as the boring, dependable, four-door rental sedans of the computing world, whereas laptops aimed at consumers could be categorized as the sporty red convertibles, boasting more attractive designs and leading-edge features such as SSD drives, backlit keyboards, and quicker boot-up times. It’s not just a matter of simple aesthetics, as frequent travelers can attest: Lighter weight, longer battery life, and slim, svelte laptop designs translate to less fatigue and frustration when you’re working on the road.

Intel hopes to help stack the deck in IT’s favor with its new ultrabook specification, which was announced at the Computex trade show in May 2011. At the show, Intel Senior Vice President Sean Maloney claimed that this new class of ultralight notebooks would be powered by Intel’s forthcoming “Ivy Bridge” family of energy-efficient processors, feature impressively thin-case designs, and retail for less than $1,000. Maloney also stated that Intel’s ultrabook efforts would be rolled out primarily in three phases: Phase 1 centered on ultrabooks that launched in mid-2011 that used Intel’s consumer ultra-low voltage (CULV) second-generation core processors. (The Samsung Series-9 and Acer Aspire S3 ultrabooks fall into this category.)

Phase 2 ultrabooks are based on Intel’s new Ivy Bridge processor family, which should be shipping in volume by April 2012. CES 2012 in January featured a raft of new ultrabook introductions that fall into this category, including the Acer Aspire S5, the HP Spectre, and more. According to statements by Maloney, phase 2 ultrabooks would also leverage new technologies such as USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt.

Finally, phase 3 ultrabooks would be based on Intel’s upcoming “Haswell” chip architecture, which should ship sometime in 2013. Intel spokesperson Becky Emmett wrote in her Intel blog that Haswell would “. . . [reinvent] the capabilities of the laptop in ultra thin and light, responsive, and secure designs. With Haswell, Intel will transform the computing experience with more power-efficient processors that allow a more dynamic experience in insanely sleek systems.”

Intel rival AMD is pushing a competing notebook design approach dubbed “ultrathin,” which will be powered by AMD’s new Trinity chipset (shipping in late Q2 or early Q3 2012). According to an article by Digitimes, Trinity-powered ultrathins could potentially arrive on the market with price tags “$100 to $200 lower than those of Intel's ultrabooks” (www.digitimes.com/news/a20120116PD219.html).

 

Ultrabooks (Photo Gallery)

 

Ultrabooks for Businesses

Though most of the existing (and forthcoming) ultrabooks are aimed primarily at the consumer market, Intel hasn’t forgotten about the business market, and it will begin shipping Ivy Bridge processors in mid-to-late 2012 that will support Intel vPro, which provides hardware-based management and security features aimed at IT professionals.

“We’ve been offering Intel vPro for the IT market for years, and upcoming Ivy Bridge processors will feature the sixth iteration of our vPro platform,” Intel Marketing Manager Roger Chang told me recently. “Intel vPro-based ultrabooks will help address the consumerization of IT and also give IT professionals the security and manageability they’ve been asking for.”

One PC manufacturer that has taken an interest in providing ultrabooks tailored for the business market is HP, which released the Folio 13—a first-generation ultrabook—in December 2012.

“The Folio 13 might not be the thinnest or the lightest notebook, but we made design decisions to benefit business users,” says Kyle Thornton, HP’s category manager for ultralight business notebook PCs. “For example, we made the Folio 13 thick enough to offer a full RJ45 Ethernet jack, as many of our business customers hate using dongles and extra cables to provide that functionality when traveling. The Folio 13 weighs 3.3lbs, but that extra weight goes to larger batteries that provide more than 9 hours of battery life.”

Thornton added that HP made the decision to offer the Folio 13 in two variants, with one aimed at businesses and the other at consumers, with features appropriate for each market. For example, the Folio 13 business edition can be ordered with Windows 7 Professional and a trusted platform module (TPM) chip for enhanced security and manageability.

 

The Future of the Ultrabook

Intel plans to heavily promote the ultrabook concept with millions in marketing dollars throughout 2012. Intel has been the dominant player in the server, desktop, and traditional laptop markets, but all three of those areas are experiencing modest growth (or declines) as more consumers and businesses opt for smartphones, tablets, and ultralight notebooks. This trend is a troubling one for Intel because many Android smartphones and tablets are powered by processors developed by ARM, whereas most newer iPhones and all iPads rely on Apple’s internally developed A4/A5 mobile processors.

So Intel is fighting back by working with OEM partners to develop more attractive ultrabook notebook designs, and by helping push more ultrabooks into the enterprise to help IT professionals stem the tide of consumer-focused devices flooding into offices. Intel clearly hopes the ultrabook initiative will help the company surf on top of the IT-consumerization tidal wave rather than be crushed by it. Regardless of whether Intel, AMD, or other players emerge as winners in the ultraportable notebook space in the months and years to come, it’s clear that consumers and IT pros will soon have a flood of thin, powerful, and highly portable computing devices to choose from—a development that’s good news for any consumer or corporation looking to purchase new portable PCs.