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2012, the Year of the Ultrabook? We think not!

IndiaTechOnline comment by Anand Parthasarathy

Bangalore January 4: Like the rest of the technology media, we at IndiaTechOnline, have received year end suggestions from Intel's marketing machinery, that 2012 might legitamately be called the Year of the Ultrabook. We have carefully weighed this suggestion and have come to the conclusion that we don't want to endorse it. Our readers have the right to know why.

The Ultrabook -- a name that is now an Intel property -- is being used by them to identify a new personal computer design that they unveiled a few months ago. The key features are: a new family of Intel's Core processors which are significantly less power consumption; consequent long battery life -- for 7 hours or more; a thin form factor, typically 15 mm and extreme lightness achieved by a single; aluminium shell-- a 13.3 inch -screen ultrabook weighs less than 3 lbs or 1.3 kg. Software-wise the ultrabook feature a Rapid start feature which promises to boot up within seconds rather than minutes and improved graphics fuelled by hardware improvements.... in short a thin-n-lite machine with longer operation time and lower demands on the battery. Admittedly all these features are  nice lurches in the direction of user friendliness but there is heavy price to pay for what -- in cold blooded terms these are incremental improvements in standard features rather than a radical departure from earlier designs.

The leading PC makers -- Acer, Lenovo, Toshiba, LG, Samsung as well as Asus -- have all launched their realizations of the ultrabook. Many of them have been available in India these last few weeks -- and the asking price has swung from a low of Rs 50,000 for Acer's Aspire S3 to nearly Rs 70,000 for Lenovo's IdeaPad U300s. OEMs are compelled to add value to differentiate themselves --and this adds to the price: Versions of LG's XNote Z330 Ultrabook are being sold abroad for up to $ 2300 ( Rs 115,000). Intel knows that the Ultrabook was going to push up the price of a portable PC: their suggestion was a median price of a thousand dollars.

So we have what is touted as a radically new PC effectively doubling the price of a machine ( at the very least) in the standard laptop category. Need we say we are disappointed? Its dominant position in the ecology of personal computing, gives Intel an enviable and unique ability to drive design and innovation, supply and demand in a direction that the world would perceive as positive and beneficial, as steps towards empowering the world's disadvantaged billions with the tools of computer and communications technology. Yet, its key product announcements in the first decade of this century, have done little to radically bring down the cost of computing per se. Its much touted Classmate PC -- which one might have thought was an ideal candidate for furthering socially responsible goals of technology -- came with such an unfriendly price tag that the few global PC makers who used the design never saw significant markets opening up; nations like India have had to turn elsewhere to find a product and a price point that would make sense for the huge educational market.

The Ultrabook whips together features on the wish list of many lay PC users -- but it delivers them at a cost that most customers will find unaffordable. This is not the stuff of radical design from the world's number one chip maker. This looks like playing catch up with similarly conceived products like the Macbook Air which has come from Apple, a company that has arrogantly assumed that quality can be sold for a stiff a premium to premium customers. Apple never pretended that it had any interest in the 'rest of us'. Intel professed to design and deliver for us -- and with the Ultrabook , did the very opposite. This is not going to bring the UN's goal of an Information Society any nearer. This is not going to bridge any divide, digital or otherwise. It is going to create a new product to be flaunted by its owners, in much the same way the well heeled flash their iPod Nanos and iPads and their Blackberries... in other words a status symbol that says " Look at my Ultrabook. I have arrived because I can afford it.

Which is why we think 2012 is NOT about to become the Year of the UltraBook. We are still waiting for the next big idea in computing, one that will truly marry technology to worthy social purpose and help advance globally accepted goals. The Ultrabook,   is not it.  It will touch too few lives  to pass the test.