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Can the Ultrabook top the MacBook Air? (Q&A)

What's necessary to make the Ultrabook a hit and thereby match or beat the Air in popularity? IDC analyst Bob O'Donnell offers his take.

The only way the new Ultrabook laptop category can top the MacBook Air is to get cheap fast. But that won't necessarily be easy, according to an IDC analyst.

Toshiba Z830 is a 0.6-inch thick, 2.5-pound Ultrabook coming in November for 'under $1,000.' Like other Ultrabooks, it comes standard with a solid-state drive.
Toshiba Z830 is a 0.6-inch thick, 2.5-pound Ultrabook coming in November for 'under $1,000.' Like other Ultrabooks, it comes standard with a solid-state drive. CNET Reviews

Ultrabooks--for the uninitiated--are very light, very thin Windows laptops that compete with the MacBook Air. The core hardware includes Intel second-generation "Sandy Bridge" processors and solid-state drives. One of the best examples is the 13-inch Toshiba Portege Z830.

The Z830 has a magnesium alloy case, weighs about 2.5 pounds, and is 0.63 inches thick. Toshiba claims it will sell for less than $1,000.

By comparison, the 13-inch MacBook Air is about 3 pounds, 0.68 inches thick, and starts at $1,299.

It's worth noting that this class of laptop is not new. Dell once sold the Adamo line of aluminum-clad, ultraslim (under 0.7-inches thick) laptops with solid-state drives as standard equipment, as did Toshiba, among others. Dubbed "executive" or "luxury" laptops, they were invariably priced in the stratosphere.

I asked Bob O'Donnell, IDC's program vice president for clients and displays, what it will take to make the Ultrabook a mainstream Windows laptop that competes with, and possibly tops, the MacBook Air in popularity.

Question: What does the Ultrabook need to be to become a mainstream laptop?
O'Donnell: I think they're great products and exactly what the PC market needs. You look at an Ultrabook and you say, wow, this makes notebooks still relevant. Ultrabooks can be a mainstream category if they hit the right price points. But my concern is that these first few products are going to be more niche because of the price. Lenovo said $1,199. Toshiba says it's going to start under $1,000, which means it's going to be $999.

So how low do they need to go?
O'Donnell: I think they need to be at $799. And Intel's put some pretty tough guidelines in place (e.g., maximum thickness of 0.8 inches). Is there a way to relax the guidelines where it's still good enough but allows me to hit a better price point? So you can get close [to the guidelines] but make it $200 cheaper? That may be necessary.

Can you describe the negative impact a bit more if Ultrabooks sell initially near or above $1,000? Particularly when you take into consideration the MacBook Air, which is a big player in that space?
O'Donnell: It's the impact of not selling in huge quantities. We know the notebook market over $1,000 is pretty small. Even if you take some reasonable share there, it's a small market. And the reality is that Apple owns the thousand-dollar-plus market. That's why it's so incredibly price sensitive and price dependent.

Is there a tipping point where Ultrabooks become the default laptop design?
O'Donnell: My analogy is the TV market. After LCD TVs hit reasonable price points, who would ever buy a fat CRT TV? [In other words, consumers will eschew bigger, thicker, heavier laptops--the standard mainstream design today--if they can get a very light, skinny laptop for about the same price.]

What about optical drives? The MacBook Air is popular despite the lack of an optical drive.
O'Donnell: Have we come far enough along that it is OK not to have an optical drive? I think for a lot of people, it is OK.

HP has been conspicuously absent from the Ultrabook discussion. What do you think they will do in light of spinning off their PC business?
O'Donnell: "We've heard that they will--all major players will come out with Ultrabooks. It's clearly where the market is going to go."