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Intel executive talks Ultrabook form, function (Q&A)

The executive who heads up Intel's Ultrabook group discusses its features, form, and function.

Ultrabooks are coming. The first wave of superslim laptops are expected to hit in force by the holiday season. Earlier this week, I spoke with Greg Welch, director of Intel's Ultrabook group, to get a better idea of what an Ultrabook is.

Though Intel won't make Ultrabooks, it will supply the core components, so it is intimately involved in the platform. And, as Welch, describes it, the Ultrabook is "an initiative to advance the state of the art of the notebook experience across several years."

Question: Can you talk about some of the new technologies Intel is targeting?
Welch: We're looking at lithium polymer batteries, which are typically found in cell phones. So, the question is, how can we accelerate that process and what kind of implementation and economic hurdles stand in the way and how can we work with the ecosystem to overcome those and accelerate their adoption? The focal point for the lithium polymer industry is handhelds and tablets, but it's equally applicable [for Ultrabooks]. They're more expensive on per watt hour basis than classic cylindrical batteries. It's a cost versus benefit trade-off. So, to the degree we can work with the industry to reduce some of those costs, and I think you'll see more and more of it used in notebooks."

Can you talk about materials?
Welch: We don't have any set opinion on materials or design elements. Different materials pose different challenges. Machined aluminum is great but it isn't cheap. People are looking at fiberglass, carbon fiber, and metal reinforced plastics. Each one of those has benefits and tradeoffs. [But] the OEM is closer to the customer. They know what works for them and what works best for the customer.

What about branding? Anything along the lines of the successful Centrino program?
Welch: In the purest sense of the word, no, we're not going to do branding. It's not going to become another Centrino-like logo. To the degree that we're trying to create some consistency, we imbue the name Ultrabook with meaning and value in the mind of the buyer. And OEMs pick up on that by labeling their systems that meet the definition as an Ultrabook. We''ll be doing merchandising and marketing around it to help direct people's attention to it. But, no, it's not going to be a logo. But the way it's promoted and positioned within the store, it would be very clear that these devices belong to a particular category. I would expect an OEM to put a peel-off sticker [on the laptop], for example, that calls out that it's an Ultrabook. And hang tags would call out that, hey, this is an Ultrabook.

Intel had an analogous program for thin laptops a few years back dubbed CULV? But that was very murky and no one really seemed to know what a CULV laptop was. (Note: CULV stands for Consumer Ultra Low Voltage.)
Welch: One of the things we learned from CULV is that we had no formal definition around what a CULV product and platform was supposed to look like, what promises it was supposed to make. It was impossible to identify the category and in fact the systems that resulted were all over the map. If you have Centrino on one hand and CULV on the other, we'll be much closer to the Centrino end of the spectrum. Yes, a buyer will be clearly aware of which systems are Ultrabooks. [The Asus] UX21 is an iconic example. Do I think that means that all Ultrabooks will be a wedge design? No. Ultimately over time the category will include convertible designs.

What do you mean by convertible?
Welch: We've classically talked about productivity and creativity sorts of applications. The things we use our laptops for day in and day out. Powerpoint presentations, getting through a backlog of e-mail. Increasingly, we see devices like tablets where the emphasis is on consumption. Another way of thinking about this is thinking about the posture that people are in when they're in these modes. In a cafe, some people are leaning forward or leaning into their work. That's what they're doing on their laptop. And other people are leaning back with the tablet held up in front of them. And when you talk to users they wish to move through that modality of use fluidly. So, we looked at this and said why can't we create one device that supports both modes. We've seen swivel designs in the past. I expect we'll see sliders. But this is an area that's ripe for experimentation. Typically, there is broad experimentation before the industry hits on a new formula that works. Then, a steady state prevails for a couple of years.

What about Thunderbolt and USB 3.0?
Welch: We certainly think Thunderbolt is consistent with the experience we're trying to promote. With Ultrabook we haven't made a final decision as to whether it's part of the baseline definition or recommendation. We're still working with OEM customers on exactly when and how to think about Thunderbolt. But you can certainly imagine many Ultrabooks will embrace it. It enables much more responsive systems when working with peripherals as well as slimmer designs because you can aggregate a lot of the I/O into one bus that supports video graphics, USB 3.0.

Will we see Thunderbolt integrated into Intel chipsets?
Welch: Historically, successful technologies tend to get integrated into the platform. And in Ivy Bridge, USB 3.0 is part of the underlying platform. (Note: Ivy Bridge is the Intel chip technology that follows Sandy Bridge.)

What about the threat of ARM and Apple's potential use of its A series of ARM processors in future MacBooks?
Welch: We hear the same rumors and it would be remiss of us to be dismissive. We endeavor to innovate so they'll continue to look to us as a supplier.

And how will the Ultrabook platform unfold?
Welch: Getting started in 2011. Then boosting its volume and visibility and moving it into the mainstream in 2012. Then in 2013 all of this comes to fruition where notebooks are fundamentally reinvented.