Ina Fried

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Ultrabooks, the Ultra-Fancy New Name for Laptops

As the Consumer Electronics Show kicks off next week, chances are you will start hearing a ton more about Ultrabooks.

If this is the first you’ve heard the term, it refers to Windows PCs that resemble the MacBook Air — computers that are thin and light, use a flash drive rather than a traditional hard drive and can boot up rather quickly.

Intel plans to make sure that if you haven’t heard of Ultrabooks, you soon will. The chipmaker, which has trademarked the name, is pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into both the manufacturing and the marketing of Ultrabooks.

Well, I have another word for them. I call them laptops.

The fact of the matter is this is just the direction that laptops are going. They are getting thinner and lighter, faster and sleeker, and booting up quicker than they did before. And that DVD drive, it’s going away to save money and weight.

This isn’t a revolution, but rather the continued evolution of a product that once had floppy drives and modem ports.

Some companies’ devices have already hit the market, while others, including Dell, are expected to introduce models at next week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

In many ways, the Ultrabooks are the PCs belated answer to the MacBook Air.

While netbooks offered light computers at a low cost, their cramped keyboards and small displays made them no match for the Air. Traditional laptops, meanwhile, were slow and bulky and often delivered poor battery life.

The MacBook Air has seen its sales skyrocket while the overall PC market has gained just 2 percent worldwide. According to Gartner, MacBook Air sales from October 2010 to September 2011 were five times those from a year earlier as the product moved from a high-end niche to the mainstream of Apple’s laptop lineup. That laptop alone makes up nearly 2 percent of global PC sales.

It has also picked up many of the aspects that have made the iPad a hit, including easy access to apps, multitouch gestures and the ability to nearly instantly resume from sleep.

While once it was an oddity, the MacBook Air is no longer a separate category of Mac. In fact, many outsiders think it will someday soon be the only laptop Apple makes.

PCs will probably retain a bit more diversity. People like things bigger and smaller, cheaper and pricier. Plus, the Ultrabook doesn’t meet all needs. Those with big storage needs will likely want a bigger hard drive, for example, since flash drives get prohibitively expensive over 256 gigabytes.

That’s not to say there isn’t value in what Intel is doing. First of all, it will provide a badly needed marketing boost to the PC industry, which has suffered mightily in the prestige department.

Also, Intel has a history of speeding up transitions in the computing market. Today, it is almost impossible to find a PC that doesn’t have Wi-Fi built in. But that wasn’t the case before Intel started its massive marketing push behind Centrino — introducing the notion of Wi-Fi to the masses and providing a lift to computers that packed the technology inside.

The company has big plans for the segment; it has invested $300 million in a fund to help lower the cost of the components that go into making the thin laptops, and that is just the start.

It plans ads of its own and to help fund marketing campaigns with individual PC makers. Intel isn’t saying just yet how much it will spend on the Ultrabook endeavor, but it is believed to be far more than the company spent on Centrino. Intel may well put a dollar figure to all those hundreds of millions when it talks about its Ultrabook plans at a press conference at next week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

For all its efforts, Intel has predicted that, come December, Ultrabooks will make up 40 percent of all consumer laptops sold. Others are less bullish about the segment.

In a forecast released on Wednesday, NPD DisplaySearch predicts Ultrabooks will make up just 8 percent of all laptops sold next year and 14 percent of total notebook shipments in 2013.

While there will be much debate over how many Ultrabooks will be sold, I have a different set of questions.

I have no doubt the PC industry will reach this level at some point. The question for me is whether the arrival of Ultrabooks helps the Windows PC win back share against Apple or grow the PC market as a whole or offer the industry higher profit margins.

Unless the answer to one of those question is yes, then the Ultrabooks will have transformed the laptop without improving life for those that make the products.

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