Intel Scores with Whitebook Ultrabooks

Challenges in developing and marketing customized or branded ultrabooks remain, but builders are still bullish on the concept. By James E. Gaskin

Whether you regard the Ultrabook as a revolution in portability or a thin, overpriced laptop, the recent mobile computing platform specifications from Intel Corp. are gaining favor among custom builders in the whitebox market interested in putting their own labels on the units. In fact, according to an internal survey of the Santa Clara, Calif.-based chipmaker's OEM partners, more than half plan to offer branded or customized ultrabooks.

Ultrabooks have some unique challenges in the whitebox market, however. When desktops are branded or customized, there are a variety of cases, power supplies, motherboards, storage, and other components to choose from. Not so for ultrabooks. “Larger manufacturers can justify the R&D expense that comes with designing ultrabooks, but many smaller [system builders] are likely hesitant about taking the risk,” says Deron Kershaw, an analyst at Gap Intelligence, an IT market researcher that works with manufacturers, resellers, and other industry players. “If Intel can provide the platform or base configuration, system builders can focus their time and resources on what they do best, which is tailoring systems to their customers' needs.”

And, Kershaw adds, “I see customized ultrabooks, particularly touchscreen convertibles, as a significant opportunity for the channel in the future.” As prices come down and Windows 8 gets past the initial knee-jerk rejection that plagues all new operating systems, whitebook ultrabooks with “newer features and form factors will bring some more excitement to the ultrabook segment.”

That doesn't mean adoption of the platform is exploding yet, unfortunately. “It might be a long road,” says Kershaw, “but it's the right road to be on for Intel and its partners.”

Intel, of course, is bullish on whitebook ultrabooks, and has been since the company announced its specifications. “Channel customers have demanded branded ultrabooks from major suppliers as well as traditional whitebox ultrabooks,” says Sharon Alt, director of North American channels and distribution for Intel. “This is similar to the current notebook model. Intel believes in bringing choice to the marketplace. As a result, there are both branded and whitebox ultrabooks shipping in the channel today.”

Expect many more to come later in 2013 as well. “The pipeline for ultrabooks is solid with 140 designs, more than 70 of which are now in [the] market across a range of price points,” says Alt. “We'll see 40 ultrabooks with touch capability [Windows 8] come to market over the next several quarters.” Included in that ultrabook group, notes Alt, will be new form factors such as convertibles that combine the best attributes of tablets and notebooks.

PERFORMANCE AND FLEXIBILITY
That could be very good news for custom builders. Combining the performance and keyboard input of a laptop with the light weight and flexibility of a tablet may help whitebook ultrabooks slow the profit erosion tied to the desktop computer market declines in the United States. OEMs overseas will benefit from the whitebook systems as well, says Kershaw, with smaller system builders and regional players, especially in Asia and South America, showing interest.

“Sales are sluggish, certainly slower than expected, which can be attributed to higher prices, a weak economy, and a lack of confidence in Windows 8 among businesses,” says Kershaw, but the momentum of mobile computing continues to gain strength.

Although ultrabooks that OEMs and system builders can brand are shipping today, new markets take time to educate. Ultrabooks may seem pricey when compared with consumer-quality laptops, but business-oriented Windows 8 tablets will cost about as much as most ultrabooks. Tablet hype has been in high gear for several years longer than ultrabooks have been available, but many midsize and large companies remain hesitant to jump into the deep end of the tablet pool. Ultrabooks may follow suit.

Still, ultrabooks, especially touchscreen convertible models that can function as tablets when needed, have a chance to remake the mobile computing landscape. And having your name on the mobile computing device of choice for your customers is now possible with a whitebook ultrabook.