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Ultrabooks: trying to catch Apple four years after the MacBook Air

Taking on Apple with design by committee

Intel's promotion of Ultrabooks four years after the launch of the MacBook Air may help to explain why Apple is now a $600bn company.

Apple is now a $600bn company. How does a once almost bankrupt, niche computer maker make it to gold house and rocket car territory?

Apple makes products so beloved of the man and woman on the street that they are prepared to queue up to hand over a small fortune. This is because, we are told, 'they just work'. Apple's hardware and software offers a plug-and-play simplicity that other technology makers would kill for.

Apple makes beautiful, game-changing products, and it does so out of step with the rest of the technology world. There have been flops, but Apple's key wins tend to change the game: iPod, iPad and Mac OS X, to name but three. They lock you in to Apple's world: technology's largest gated community - safe, secure, clean and expensive. Resistance is futile, but collaboration chic.

A clue to how this happens can be found in Intel's upcoming Ivy Bridge launch, and the second generation of Ultrabooks that will arrive later this year.

Intel has set aside a staggering $300m to promote Ultrabooks. It is determined Ultrabook will succeed.

As Arm gobbles up the mobile market (kick started by the iPhone and iPad) Intel is staring at a post-PC world in which desktop products are less relevant. So it is peddling the line that tablets without keyboards are just consumption devices, and portable computers will soon be shrunk-down Intel PCs, rather than fattened-up Arm smartphones. (See also: What is an Ultrabook?)

None of which will worry Apple, despite its dominance of the Arm-powered tablet and smartphone world.

After all, the first 'ultrabook' hit the market in 2008 and was called 'Macbook Air'. Apple couldn't have made the Air without Intel's technology, but it is fascinating to ponder how it is that four years later Intel still has to twist the arms of its partners to get them to create their own thin-and-light PCs.

My hunch is that where the makers of branded Ultrabooks take the best of Intel or Arm's, Microsoft or Google's technology and create products with it, Apple designs something it thinks people will love, then sources the tech to make it happen. It helps that Apple has its own OSes. It doesn't have to worry about complying with Microsoft's spec, and it knows what its software platform is going to look like in the future.

And this happy situation is a direct result of Apple's near failure before Steve Jobs was brought back on board. Jobs was clearly a visionary, but he returned to a company that had no option but to trust his vision completely, rather than doing what everyone else was doing. In return, Jobs trod the narrow line between megalomaniac and genius, and ended up on the correct side (despite the odd failure).

The challenge for Intel, Microsoft, Google and all those outside Apple's camp is to build by committee amazing products that 'just work', without a singular vision to guide them.

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