Intel expects to see more innovation in PC design in the next year than there has been since the mid-1990s. That's the take of Navin Shenoy, Intel vice president and general manager, who is focused on thin and lightweight ultrabooks and hybrid laptops with detachable screens that fold back and convert into tablets.
Those designs are a far cry from the thick, heavy and fairly static laptop designs that the industry produced for years.
"When we started the whole ultrabook push, the fundamental reason was to get innovation flowing in a rapid fashion in the PC industry," Shenoy told Computerworld in an interview at the International CES show in Las Vegas. "Year after year after year, we had those kind of thicker machines. We had incremental advances, but I expect to see more innovation in the next 12 months than we had in the last 18 years."
Gary Richman, Intel's director of marketing, showed a detachable hybrid prototype designed to run Intel's upcoming fourth generation Core chip that has 13 hours of battery life. The computer, codenamed North Cape, has batteries in the base of the machine, as well as in the detachable tablet.
Used as a laptop, the device has 13 hours of battery life. However, if the tablet is detached and used separately, it can run for 10 hours without a recharge. At that point, it can be reattached to the base and used either as a laptop or to recharge the tablet.
There are six of these prototypes, Richman said, and Intel is only starting to discuss them with PC makers this week at CES.
While neither Richman nor Shenoy would admit that the PC industry has been struggling, despite quarter after quarter of sagging reports about the market, they did say they think hybrid computers will be a stolid boost for the industry.
Ultrabook sales in 2012 were less than analysts had expected, but Intel remains positive about future sales, especially for hybrid ultrabooks, over the next several years.
"How important are they? Very," Richman said. "We're investing in this, and we're encouraging OEMs to bring these systems to market... Hybrids and convertibles are definitely an area that can create excitement for the PC category and drive sales."
Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group, said the PC market is going through a period of exciting innovation and it couldn't come at a better time.
"Much of this innovation is being fueled by the huge competitive pressure on laptops from tablets and even smartphones," he said. "The vendors who rely on the laptop ecosystem for a big chunk of their business are being forced to innovate to defend their turf... This could serve to increase PC sales or to at least stop the bleeding."
Shenoy, said he doesn't believe the demand for tablets has hurt laptop sales as much as the lack of innovation around them has.
"The reason people haven't been upgrading their existing notebooks or desktops is because there hasn't been a compelling reason to do so," Shenoy said. "Innovation is crucial to get people to buy notebooks again. People will upgrade when they see something compelling. These new designs - with touch, they're lighter, have better battery life -- all of these things will get people buying."
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Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.