Last year, Intel began talking about a new category of super-thin notebook computers called the ultrabook. Here at the International Consumer Electronics Show, the company, the world’s biggest maker of computer chips, made it clear it plans to pour a lot of money and effort into turning ultrabooks into the next big computing phenomenon.
Ultrabooks are essentially an effort to bring to notebooks based on Microsoft’s Windows operating system the lightweight, thin design of Apple’s MacBook Air, a machine with the thickness of a short stack of papers. Intel knows a lot about the MacBook Air because it supplies the chips that run Apple’s product, but the company wants the much larger market of Windows-based notebooks to embrace the style of the Apple device too.
At a news conference on Monday here at the show, Intel said 75 new ultrabook designs are expected to be released in 2012. Intel executives demonstrated a few of the machines, all of which were very thin, often with eye-catching metallic cases like the MacBook Air’s. One design theme Intel pitched was the idea of a hybrid ultrabook-tablet, which has a traditional keyboard for intensive data entry and a touch screen for zooming in on photos and manipulating other software.
One of the wackier-looking designs Intel showed was a concept ultrabook it calls Nikishki. Below its keyboard, the device has a huge touchpad that runs the entire width of the machine, allowing users to switch easily to touch gestures from typing.
The touchpad is transparent so that when Nikishki is closed, you can see through the underside of the laptop. Through that window, you can view a portion of the computer’s display, which will allow you to glance at e-mails, news and calendar appointments the way many people do with their smartphones today.
Mooly Eden, vice president and general manager of Intel’s PC client group, said touch will no longer be confined to tablets and smartphones. But he said the presence of a keyboard will give ultrabooks greater versatility than those devices. “Ultrabooks with touch will be the ultimate solution,” he said.
Intel also said it was trying to create new ways of interacting with computers besides touch. The company cut a deal with Nuance to add voice recognition technology made by that company to ultrabooks.
Touch screens have been tried by Windows notebook makers in the past though, without much success. No one yet has proved that there is a meaningful market of people who want a hybrid notebook and tablet, although there are plenty of people who buy those as separate products.
Intel and its partners could have one advantage over Apple if they can bring the prices of ultrabooks down to mass market levels. Right now, most ultrabooks hover around the $999 starting price of the MacBook Air. “You will see pricing going down and down,” Mr. Eden said. “You will see ultrabooks going into mainstream price points.”
Intel is using its own cash to help accelerate the decline in ultrabook prices. Last year, it announced a $300 million ultrabook fund to subsidize the development of thinner components like displays and batteries that make ultrabooks possible.
Kevin Sellers, vice president for advertising and digital marketing at Intel, said the company would also pour an undisclosed amount of money into marketing the ultrabook category to create more consumer awareness of the devices. He said an ultrabook advertising campaign will start later this year, representing one of Intel’s most significant ever.
“It’s going to be very epic, very cinematic,” he said.