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The Living in the Past Department: So Ultrabooks Are Something New?

There was an article this week that proclaimed so-called “Ultrabooks” as “The Next Big Thing in Portable Tech,” as if such products are brand new and thoroughly innovative. Such stories were inspired by the pomp and circumstance of the presentations of these thin and light note-books during the recent Consumer Electronics Show.

In case you didn’t know there’s an “Ultrabook craze” happening right now. It’s the alternative to tablets that might appeal to people for whom such gadgets as the iPad aren’t sufficient for their needs.

Unfortunately, the people who believe that the Ultrabook is something new and different seem to be living in a time warp, since such a product has been out since 2010, only it first came from Apple in the form of the MacBook Air.

Now the 2010 MacBook Air wasn’t the first version of that product. Apple originally introduced that feather light note-book at the Macworld Expo in 2008, a slimmed down 13.3-inch portable with a standard hard drive, but without optical storage or Ethernet networking (except as external options) and only two peripheral ports, one for USB, the other for an external display. It weighed a mere three pounds, in the range of those costly thin and light PC note-books.

The idea was compelling, but the price, $1,799 for the base model, was a non-starter. They sold, but not in terribly high quantities.

Segue to the fall of 2010, when Apple totally rethought the concept, creating the blueprint for Intel to build a reference platform. This time Apple considered the price carefully, with an 11.6-inch version starting  at just $999, same as the entry-level MacBook. It was, relatively speaking, a tad slimmer and lighter, with a longer-life battery and two USB ports. By 2011, Apple replaced the Mini DisplayPort with Thunderbolt.

However the most compelling change was the completely switch from a traditional hard drive to solid state storage; SSD was optionally available on the original version. Suddenly the low-end Intel processor seemed incredibly snappy. It would start in a few seconds, awake from sleep in an instant, and applications would launch much much faster than even on the most powerful Mac Pro. Sure, you were limited to only 64GB storage for the cheapest model (topping out at 256GB with a costly check on the customize page), but if you were careful about what you put on there, you’d have a pretty complete, reasonably powerful note-book for a surprisingly affordable price.

Certainly the public noticed. The MacBook Air became amazingly popular, with loads of customers willing to trade CPU horsepower, a decent number of internal peripheral ports, an optical drive, and expansive hard drive storage, for a slimmer form factor. The PC makers couldn’t match Apple’s amazing supply chain and manufacturing efficiencies, and were thus forced to charge higher prices.

So Intel, who continues to supply the chips that power Macs, created an Ultrabook reference design, helping to subsidize PC makers to build their own equivalents to the MacBook Air at similar prices. There’s even a dual-mode version that will offer a display that can be popped off, supposedly turning the computer into a traditional Windows tablet, though at a far higher price than the model with a fixed display.

Although Ultrabooks were present in earnest over at the CES, it doesn’t seem as if any of the PC makers are able to provide credible alternatives to the MacBook Air. At best, they can match Apple’s price, more or less, though they won’t receive anywhere near the same profits generated by the MacBook Air.

But to say this is something new and different is a big stretch of logic. It’s nothing more than a confession that no single PC maker can match Apple’s design flair or ability to deliver affordable gear and still make great profits. Instead, they had to depend on Intel to do the hard lifting for them.

With the Ultrabook reference platform, a PC maker can simply take the basic design, slap their own brand name on it, make a few minor case design or color changes, and claim they’ve got something new and original to sell you. I suppose, lacking a talented in-house design team, they have no choice. Besides, it’s not as if they actually have to spend much adapting the platform to their own needs. You’ll see the same situation that already plays out in the PC note-book space these days. Most models look nearly the same if you stand back a few feet, and ignore the manufacturer’s labels, assuming they’re even visible.

But I have to wonder how any member of the media can look at the Ultrabook, examine the specs of the MacBook Air, and somehow believe the former is an innovation and not a desperate attempt at copying the latter. That doesn’t mean that a PC note-book adopting the Ultrabook form factor will necessarily be a bad product. Other than the size and slimmed down internals and missing features, though, will they differ all that much from a traditional PC note-book? More to the point, will people who might otherwise be considering an iPad choose one of them instead? If they really wanted a traditional note-book computer, wouldn’t they consider the original, the MacBook Air? Just wondering.