Intel and Microsoft’s Secret Weapon Against Apple

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Harry McCracken / TIME.com

Intel and its partners are about to launch the biggest promotion of a new product category called Ultrabooks since the company’s wi-fi based Centrino launch early last decade. And Microsoft is about to launch a major update to Windows called Windows 8 that introduces the new Metro touch user interface. Together they are critical products for the future of each company individually.

In the case of Ultrabooks, I actually see them as the natural evolution of laptops and not revolutionary, as Intel would like us to think. Rather, they take advantage of the industry’s constant push to make things smaller, lighter, thinner and with better battery life. For mainstream users who have had to lug around their rather bulky laptops for the past five years, they would be justified in asking Intel and the PC vendors, “What took you so long?” given that Apple has had their MacBook Air on the market for five years and defined what an Ultrabook should be.

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And with Windows 8 and Metro, Microsoft is also following an evolutionary path toward touch user interfaces with its Metro-based smart phones and soon-to-be Metro-based tablets and PCs. Again, consumers could ask Microsoft, “What took you so long?” since Apple has had its touch user interface on the iPhone for five years and on its iPads for two years.

But both products will face several interesting challenges when they launch later this year. In the case of Ultrabooks, they’ll most likely have starting prices of between $799 and $899, though I hear there could be at least one — a stripped-down model — that could be as low as $699. At these prices, they’ll completely miss the mainstream laptop market that represents the bulk of laptops sold at prices between $299 and $599.

In the case of Windows 8 and Metro, while Metro is great on Microsoft’s phones and works very well on the tablets I’ve tested, it doesn’t translate well to the laptop or PC, since 100% of existing PCs don’t have touch screens. And most PC vendors are not putting touch screens on the majority of their new laptops because to do so adds at least another $100 to $150 in cost to the customer. If you’ve tested the consumer preview of Windows 8 and Metro on an existing laptop, you know how frustrating it is to use with existing trackpads. I consider this a potential Achilles’ heel for Windows 8, and one that could really hurt its short-term prospects.

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To be fair, Microsoft three weeks ago released recommended guidelines for next-generation trackpads, and a new design I’ve seen from Synaptics could make laptops work well with Metro once it rolls out. But this should have been something Microsoft focused on a year ago so it could have all the new laptops Metro-enabled at launch. My sense is that Microsoft should have launched Metro only on tablets this year and gradually moved Windows 8 Metro to the consumer PC markets once it had it optimized for laptops. Instead, I predict significant consumer confusion on the horizon when people try to use Metro on existing trackpads or any other nontouch input device, as the experience will be confusing at first and frustrating afterward. You’ve noticed that Apple hasn’t put touch screens on its laptops and desktops? That it has instead worked extra hard to create trackpads and external trackpads that map to the touch experience on the iPhone and iPad?

I consider the initial pricing for Ultrabooks and putting Metro on laptops and desktops issues that could slow down any early adoption of these products this year and perhaps deliver a graduated adoption in the future. However, I believe Intel and Microsoft have a secret weapon in the works that could win them kudos from the marketplace and be a key driver in getting users really interested in both companies again.

The secret weapon is a new form factor often referred to as hybrids. These are tablets that can be docked into a keyboard, effectively making them either a laptop or a laptop with a detachable keyboard. You might think those two are one in the same, but they’re actually very different in terms of design goals. In the former’s case, the design is specifically around the tablet, and the keyboard dock is modular. We already have a lot of examples of this with the iPad, where the tablet is the central device and the attachable Bluetooth keyboards are more of an afterthought. In this case, the keyboard just supports the input functions of the tablet.

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But in the latter case, the design resembles more a slim laptop or Ultrabook-like casing, and the screen can be taken off and used as a tablet. I believe this design is the secret weapon that Microsoft and Intel can use against Apple and, at least on paper, give Apple a run for its money, especially in business and enterprise. And to a lesser extent, it could be hot in some consumer segments where the keyboard is critical and users want a laptop-centered experience as well.

This is where Apple’s current strategy can be challenged. There’s the iPad that stands by itself, and then the MacBook Air, Apple’s Ultrabook that — like the iPad — also stands by itself as a separate product. But each has its own operating system, and although Mountain Lion brings a lot of iOS-like features to OS X, the two are still distinct and separate operating systems.

With the introduction of Windows 8 — especially as used on a laptop-centered hybrid in which the screen (tablet) can be detached and used as a true tablet that takes full advantage of Metro — Microsoft and Intel give their customers the best of both worlds in a single device. When in Ultrabook laptop mode, users can work with the comfortable Windows 7–like user interface they’re accustomed to while maintaining access to hundreds of thousands of Windows apps. But when the screen detaches, it automatically switches to the Metro user interface and the touch experience is now central to the device. In this mode, apps designed for Metro can give users a rich tablet experience out of the box.

If done right, the user would end up with a Windows 8 Ultrabook with a detachable screen (tablet) and need to purchase only one device instead of two. And our research shows that IT and even some consumers would have no trouble paying $999 or more for this combo product. At that price it would be a bargain. Most IT-purchased laptops are in the $699-to-$999 range now, and those who bought iPads to augment their users’ work experiences cost at least $499, so a combo device at even $1,299 to $1,399 is more than reasonable for them. Intel knows this and believes that as much as 50% of all Windows tablets will be hybrids. And Microsoft will push these types of products especially if Windows 8 laptops don’t take off as planned.

Could anything potentially derail Intel and Microsoft’s hybrid strategy? If Apple applies its innovative design knowledge to create a hybrid that blends the iPad and the MacBook Air into a single device, it could have an impact on their ability to dominate this market. On the other hand, it would validate Intel and Microsoft’s strategy as well. And if they beat Apple to the market with their version, which is likely, since at least four hybrids are set to come out by October, it could be the hero product of the launch that highlights the value of an Intel-based x86 ecosystem and convinces Windows users of the need for Ultrabooks and tablets running Windows 8.

MORE: The State of Mobile Technology

Tim Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc., a technology-industry-analysis and market-intelligence firm in Silicon Valley.

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