Here come the Ultrabooks

by David Lane

A while back, the headlines from Computerworld arrived in my mailbox and one topic jumped out at me: Ultrabooks, expected to be hot at CES, could be boon for enterprise IT. Over the past weekend I actually saw two of them at my local big box electronics store.

My first reaction was to shake my head and assume this was the latest mid cycle hardware term to convince folks to rush out and buy new gear. On further reading, I am beginning to wonder if anyone does any work anymore or if they just consume data?

According to the article, an Ultrabook™ (yes, Intel actually trademarked the term) is a device that can weigh no more than 3.1 pounds, be no more than 0.8 inches thick, and offer five to eight or more hours of battery life. They also will have flash-based storage, and use Intel's Rapid Start Technology for fast boot times. Also, according to the article, they are designed to create a new baseline for mobile computing. It should be noted that one of the models I saw is already violating the flash-based storage only provisions by including a 500GB spinning platter, but the rest of the system looked like it met the requirements. They were light and reminded me of a Macbook Air.

Now, putting the marketing hyperbole aside, I am struck by two things. First, these seem like a great idea. The second, as I said before, does anybody do any work anymore?

Let us start with the great idea first. For me, anything that increases battery life is a winner! Ultrabooks™ seem to offer the benefits of a tablet, with the addition of a real keyboard for actually doing work, which I have always thought to be one thing that is lacking in traditional tablets. Sure, the touchscreen keyboard on most of them is OK for small projects, but the angle is all wrong for any sort of serious work (like writing up this overview for example). And while a number of tablets offer bluetooth keyboards, the form factors are usually so dissimilar that it makes it almost impossible to conveniently carry them together. I am not saying you cannot, I am just saying I find them inconvenient.

But if the goal is to create a new baseline for mobile computing, I have to wonder if I am working from the same assumption of baseline as the marketing people are. I have two laptops - one a full blown, 15” screen monster with an Intel Core 2 Duo, 500 Gbytes of disk and 4 Gbytes of RAM. It also has USB, DVD-RW, wired, and wireless networking. Compared with an Ultrabook™, it might just as well be a desktop. My other laptop is a netbook with 200 Gbytes of disk and 2 Gbytes of RAM, USB, wired, and wireless networking. Both get between two and four hours of battery life, depending on what I am doing. The netbook gets a little better mileage because it has a bigger battery pile and actually has fewer energy gobbling programs. Both are relatively easy to carry around. But what makes me scratch my head is that I have literally terabytes of data (not that I carry with me at any one time mind you – my hard disks are limited) and I have to wonder what the value of an Ultrabook™ is with only flash memory. Are we going back to the days when Bill Gates was purported to say who needs more than 512 kbytes of RAM?

The answer, of course, and I can hear the shouting from the wind, is your data is in the Yeah, right. For a moment, let me step back, slap myself upside the head and then start again. I have terabytes of data, some of which I do not especially like having on a laptop even with an encrypted hard disk to begin with. You think I am going to push it up to a cloud somewhere? [We have had this discussion about who owns your data. Now with new provisions in U.S. law, you need to be very careful about where your data is and what it contains] But I digress.

Putting data in the cloud assumes I am going to have access to it. And this is the bigger fallacy. Now maybe you are lucky enough to live somewhere where the access to data is not monitored for volume, or the access to always on connections is better than it is here in the United States (and my friends in Canada from what I am hearing). I spend the bulk of my day at work. My corporate network is filtered and access blocked to such an extent that getting out to check the weather almost requires an act of Congress and I no longer work in the Federal sector. Which means that I can only access my data when I am at home, connected to my home network. Better not forget that file when I take a road trip outside a major metropolitan area...or drive to the corner coffee shop.

My point here is this. If you are someone that does more than send the occasional email or updates a spreadsheet, or you are a C-Level executive, the Ultrabook™ could be the very answer you are looking for. But if you are part of the twenty percent of us that do real work and need real RAM and disk, the Ultrabook™ probably is not going to rock your world.

The sad part is that most vendors are not building machines for us, but for the other eighty percent that do nothing more than write emails or update the occasional spreadsheet, which means that the new baseline just got moved so far down that we might never be able to get real PCs anymore. But this is just a thought. Anyone bought a desktop lately?

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