The following commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet's guest contributor program, which is separate from the company's news coverage.
NEW YORK (
) -- There are three major constraints facing a laptop maker's product: size/weight; performance (CPU, GPU and connectivity); and price.
new processors powering its "Ultrabook" goal for late 2011 professes to combine an 11.6-inch, 2.2-pound laptop, performance that's on par with today's larger i7 Core processors, and starting below $1,000.
It would appear that Intel is setting a low bar for itself. Let's start with the Apple MacBook Air comparison. This outstanding laptop starts at $1,000 ($1,250 with 3-year warranty), 2.3 lbs and is almost as thin as any laptop in the market. It would appear that the only areas where the Ultrabook laptops beat the current MacBook Air are in CPU performance and battery life.
But wait! Two things about CPU performance:
looks to be upgrading its MacBook Air very soon with what may even be a beefed-up Intel CPU. How does this relate precisely to the Ultrabook processors promised for 4Q? Will consumers understand or care?
2. More importantly, I argue that for basic business productivity, CPU performance probably doesn't matter anymore. Even the most basic processors long before the Ultrabook laptops arrive, can handle your typing, spreadsheets, presentations, and basic Web surfing. More and more people are using Google Docs and equivalent, and live 100% of their laptop computing lives inside the browser, i.e., in the cloud.
What matters more than incremental CPU performance is GPU performance. Video quality has yet to be perfected inside the envelope of a very thin and cheap laptop. Typing this article on my Google Chromebook does in and of itself not look any different than it would on a Mac or Windows laptop, but there is still a large discrepancy in terms of video quality between all sorts of laptops.
But where do people watch mobile video now anyway? I argue that I don't watch anything more than brief news clips and equivalent on my laptop, typically from YouTube. This type of video doesn't even warrant that high a quality. I think people increasingly watch more entertainment-quality video on the tablet, such as the iPad, Android or
Research In Motion
Those have better battery life for video, and the form factor is less "geeky" for entertainment as opposed to actual work. Just consider how difficult it is to fit a decent-size laptop on the tray of a domestic coach seat flight. Then compare with the Apple iPad. Case closed. Bottom line: People are getting both a laptop and a tablet with they travel for business.If CPU power matters less, while more and more people do all of their work in cloud apps such as Google Docs, what's the answer? A Google Chromebook, of course. With
adding offline capability to Docs, Gmail and Calendar this summer, the Chromebook looks like the ultimate Ultrabook.
Think about it: Starting at just $350 with no need for any long warranty because you can't screw up the software, the Chromebooks from Asus will compare very favorable to the $1,250 MacBook Air (when you include the $250 three-year warranty needed for this class of device).
The Chromebook boots faster than the MacBook Air, weighs slightly more at 2.9 lbs, but also has a better battery life. Samsung's Chromebook battery life is a further 25% or so better than the Asus Chromebook, too.
What people want is a laptop that will never cause any problems, require no maintenance, and will be easily replaced if lost, stolen or otherwise dropped down the marble stairway. Only the Chromebook maximizes this goal, especially if you're on the road and don't have your full TimeMachine backup handy.
The Chromebooks, ranging in price from $350 to $500, are going on sale at
on June 15. As long as you don't need or want iTunes on this particular laptop, I think most people will flock to this superior ownership experience at the expense of Apple's MacBooks and all the various classes of laptops based on Microsoft's Windows 7 OS.
Imagine this: How often have you given a laptop to a child, an elderly person, or for that matter just a non-tech adult person in general? How often do they require tech support? Some program didn't install right? Backup not working? Trouble setting up such-and-such?
Suddenly just a blank screen? Computer used to boot in less than a minute, but now it's four minutes or for that matter eight minutes? Can't figure out how to restore your old files? Migrating to a new computer?
All of these issues means that all of us have had to play IT support from time to time. But with Google's Chromebooks, all of these issues are now going out the windows -- no pun intended. Good riddance!
Various classes of geeks and computer snobs scoff at the Chromebooks.They believe they need the fastest CPUs and the ability to customize their devices to the tiniest detail. Good for them. They can stay with Apple and
. Most normal people, who just want the maintenance-free PC experience at the lowest cost, will go with Chromebooks.
Just one more time: Don't say again that Chromebooks are useless when the connectivity is broken, because on May 11 Google announced that the key apps you need and use to do your work -- Docs, Gmail and Calendar -- will be available offline starting this Summer. I don't want to hear that "not available offline" argument against Chromebooks ever again. Rinse and repeat.
Bottom line: Intel's Ultrabook launch represents a natural next step in Moore's Law, but it's becoming increasingly irrelevant in the age of cloud computing and the new age of Chromebooks going on sale June15 -- many months before the Ultrabooks.
At the time of publication, Wahlman was long Apple, Google and Research In Motion.
Anton Wahlman was a sell-side equity research analyst covering the communications technology industries from 1996 to 2008: UBS 1996-2002, Needham & Company 2002-2006, and ThinkEquity 2006-2008.