CES, Ultrabooks and Lowered Expectations

It has been a few years since I have been to CES and I have to be honest, I have never seen the kind of lowered expectations for an event. There have been numerous stories from mainstream publications this past week telling us not to judge the future of the industry based on what the hot product at the show happens to be. For more see the end of this article.

While on the one hand this is good advice backed up by lots of flops like the Microsoft and HP tablet of a few years back that was supposed to be an iPad killer but was never released.

I’m wondering if it is just me who is skeptical about new technology in general. In other words CES or not you never really know if something is going to be the next big thing. Even when we are sure as an industry that a technology will take root, we have seen timing and other factors are more important than being an early player.

So just because 3D technology which was a hot trend at CES a while back is not mainstream it doesn’t mean it won’t be. Skype was way late to the VoIP game – MagicJack even later but both became successful examples of IP communications technology – a space left for dead by the majority of investors after the nuclear winter in telecom of late 2000.

This brings us to Ultrabooks – a topic I cannot be more delighted to discuss. Without a doubt this will be a major theme of this event and moreover I am writing this post on an ASUS Zenbook Ultrabook and love this device. How much? I am out here at CES this week and when I leave the room and don’t take it, I leave it in the safe.

The Asus is like a piece of jewelry – a fine watch as they say. In case you didn’t read my last post on the matter the keyboard is something I haven’t totally adjusted to – it lacks travel and forces you to hit it harder than normal to ensure all your letters appear on screen.

For a few years now we have heard the term consumerization of IT and to me this means bringing in really cool and trendy devices such as iPhones, Android smartphones and tablets into a company – and merging this with a wave of new software and applications designed to take these consumer tools and make them business tools.

While Ultrabooks are pretty much powerful laptops in sleek packaging – nothing new in terms of operating system or even software for that matter, they perform a slightly different function. They bring the power of desktop computing to tablet form factor. In other words these devices are the MacBook Airs of laptops. Having spent a fair amount of time in various Apple stores – my most memorable time was at the one on Greenwich Ave in Connecticut where a father gave his daughter a choice between the MacBook Air and the iPad.

I spent some time watching her go back and forth as she made the decision.

We all understand that there are big differences between these devices – one has hundreds of thousands of free apps which run on it from the app store – many of course have been written because the same tablet device doesn’t run Flash. The MacBook for its part is more powerful, has a bigger screen, etc.

But the point is the Ultraboook is the PC version of the MacBook Air meaning that if the MacBook Air is a serious competitor to the iPad then the Ultabook is the biggest threat to tablets in general.

Now the Asus I am using costs just a bit less than $1,500 and an Amazon Kindle Fire will set you back only $200. A big difference. Still there are worthy Ultrabooks on the market from the likes of Toshiba for $800. In fact the Toshiba is thinner than this Asus but the lack of bluetooth and less impressive screen resolution may be deal breakers for power users.

So to me this week at CES where a number of new Ultrabooks are expected is about not only innovation and design but competition.

I have spent my life in technology and have seen how competition has driven down prices incredibly – especially when Moore’s Law is thrown into the mix. In high school I wrote all the programs for TMC’s computers – they were all on a proprietary UNIX system but when it came time to migrate to a more powerful computer I hand-built a PC with an AMD processor running SCO UNIX – the price was much much lower and this new server was a monster in terms of disk space and processing power. The company which had sold us the proprietary UNIX system was named ZILOG and closed in the eighties at some point no doubt because proprietary has a tough time competing with open.

We are seeing the same thing happen in the Android ecosystem – it happened in the PC market, with laptops and numerous other spaces.

And it will happen to Ultrabooks. In a year a Zenbook equivalent to what I am using now will likely cost $899 or less.

So yes, trends in tech are tough to nail down – especially when it comes to timing. But the Ultrabook is evolutionary as much as it is revolutionary and as great as tablets are they really stink at doing things you need a PC for – they aren’t wonderful for content creation for example – switching windows on an iPad is still tedious as compared holding the Alt button and hitting Tab repeatedly.

And then there are the websites – how many times have I tried to complete an ecommerce transaction on a tablet from RIM or Apple only to find the formatting is not designed for a tablet and I have to wait to get to a PC to do it right.

The price discrepancy between a Kindle Fire and Ultrabook is massive a 4x differential or in my case 7.5x.

But we are at the beginning of a new subcategory of product and unless you believe the consumerizaion of IT is just a fallacy you better realize and quick that your executives will be asking about Ultrabooks soon. Moreover a gift to corporations may come in the form of more users buying their own Ultrabooks and bringing them to work – saving companies who allow foreign equipment into the mix a good amount of money.

So sure, lower expectations all you want. But from where I stand, Ultrabooks are a must-have at this price point – just wait until the competition heats up this week at CES.

For more see articles relating to products unveiled at CES and how they have failed:

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