In 2011, Intel reinvented both the PC market and its own operations. At the time, personal computing was undergoing a sea change toward devices that were ultra-portable, low-cost and power-efficient, but the demand had gotten ahead of the technology: laptops did not sufficiently meet the above criteria, while tablets and netbooks did so by sacrificing too much performance.
Intel set out to create a new type of device that would fill the gap — they called it the Ultrabook. Intel had long provided design sheets to manufacturers to help them implement Intel microprocessors, but this reflected a new ambition: to create a new product for PC manufacturers who had not yet developed it for themselves and shepherd it from concept to end-user device. The term “Ultrabook” was trademarked by Intel and given precise specifications to protect its meaning. An Ultrabook could weigh no more than 3.1 pounds, could be no more than 0.71 inches thick and had to provide at least five hours of battery life. If companies wanted to participate in the Ultrabook market, they would have to meet those criteria (with Intel’s help, of course).
To develop the Ultrabook, Intel essentially inverted its development cycle: the company had typically developed central processing units (CPU) for PCs, then developed the operating systems and applications to suit it. For the Ultrabook, Intel anthropologists and market researchers worked with consumers to understand what end users wanted, reckoned out the software required to satisfy those desires, and then designed the CPU to support the final product. (The first Ultrabooks would run on second-generation Intel Core technology. The fourth generation of Intel Core, codenamed Haswell, would be the first processor to be built entirely with the Ultrabook in mind.) To ensure the new devices had the “ecosystem” of supporting products to thrive, Intel Capital announced the creation of an unprecedented $300 million fund to invest in companies that would develop Ultrabook products.
Intel outlined the Ultrabook concept at the Computex trade show in Taiwan on May 31, 2011, generating strong buzz that continued as Ultrabooks made their way into production. The first device to satisfy Intel’s definition of an Ultrabook, the Asus UX21, became available the following October. By January 2012, virtually all major PC makers had entered the market.
Within about a year, more than 100 different Ultrabooks based on Intel Core technology were either available or under development. In the ensuing years, Ultrabooks would show staying power and develop into a distinct segment of the personal computer market, creating a profit center for both the manufacturers who made the machines and Intel, who made the hardware that powered them. For the first time in company history, Intel had conceived and executed a commercially successful consumer electronics from scratch.
This story is among a series running to celebrate Intel’s 50th anniversary in 2018.