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Why Ultrabooks Are Enforced Common Sense

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2012 is predicted to be the year of the tablet, but if aliens had landed at CES this week they would have their attentions drawn by another product entirely: the Ultrabook. In the show's first 24 hours Acer launched the Aspire S5, HP the Envy Spectre, Lenovo the T430u, LG the Z330 and Z430, Samsung the Series 5 and Dell the XPS 13.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Intel PC client chief Mooly Eden used the company's press conference to proclaim "75-plus" Ultrabooks will be released in 2012, 50 per cent of which will have 14- and 15in displays. Have Ultrabooks taken over the PC industry? No, enforced common sense has.

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If the last few years have proved anything, it is that the majority of PC makers had no idea what they were doing. Like kamikaze pilots they have savaged their own business models: eroding profit margins, cutting corners and casting aside creativity to produce generic machines only differentiated by their company logo. This trend reached its nadir with netbooks. These once lean, flash memory-based devices with Linux operating systems were ruined in a spiral of self destructive greed.

In the very definition of quantity over quality, PC makers swamped netbooks with Windows, plugged in cheap hard drives and stuck rigidly to underpowered specifications dictated to them by Microsoft. Why? In exchange for a few dollars off a licence fee for the aged XP operating system in the hope bargain-basement pricing would ensnare the mass market. It did, but so poor was the experience, so mis-sold was it in a desperate attempt to shift units, that PC makers all but killed any chance of repeat business - and in doing so laid the foundations for disgruntled punters to jump ship to the iPad.
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In recent months the consequences for these years of stupidity have started to bear out. The most high-profile has been Hewlett Packard (HP). In August the world's largest PC maker announced it was going to quit the PC business entirely because of dwindling profits inherent in the sector. The fact it ultimately decided to keep the division (albeit by spinning it off) after months of dawdling counted for little. If the world's biggest PC maker had questioned the viability of the PC industry what hope for everyone else?

In reality the answer was simple and spelt out by Acer CEO J. T. Wang in December: "We will shift our strategy to improving profitability [away] from pursuing market share blindly with cheap and unprofitable products." It is a sentence so blindingly obvious that the fact it needed to be said satirised the entire sector. And Wang's olive branch? "Ultrabooks will become our key growth driver next year as customers want a lighter, thinner notebook with longer battery life. Selling more Ultrabooks will also help improve our profit margins as they command higher prices."

Wang was right, but he didn't go into why the Ultrabook existed in the first place. It was the brainchild of Intel, borne out of necessity to protect the sector and PC makers from themselves.

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