This week I’m on Maui at Qualcomm’s launch of the always connected PC. This is a major event because this is Qualcomm’s answer to Intel’s failed attempt to do a smartphone in that the company is challenging, with this announcement, Intel’s dominance on PCs. If this was processor to processor, the outcome would be certain, and it wouldn’t favor Qualcomm. But it isn’t. This is Qualcomm going after Intel using its modem. Qualcomm is attempting to change the dynamic, making this about connectivity, not about the CPU performance, which has generally defined this segment since its inception.
The related products aren’t due to market until next year, but the proposition is compelling. The question is whether you can change a mindset that has been in place for decades in months.
Let’s talk about the always connected PC this week.
Not Windows RT
One of the problems bringing this to market was that Microsoft’s first attempt at this was called Windows RT and it had many of the benefits that this latest launch has. These included attractive pricing, long battery life, and (for the time) a comparatively thin and light form factor. However, someone clearly missed a meeting at Microsoft with Windows RT. It wasn’t always connected and basically connected just like an x86 system. This always seemed like a foolish mistake because the solution that ARM generally wins with is a combination of processor and modem, providing an always connected advantage, but Windows RT, by leaving off the WAN capability, only used half of the winning solution.
It wasn’t a full implementation of Windows either and just ran Office and a very small set of applications. As a result, buyers saw the machine as crippled, and people won’t buy a crippled machine no matter how attractive the price.
Well, Microsoft learned from this hard lesson and this latest effort is no Windows RT.
The Always Connected PC
This latest effort ticks off all the boxes that Windows RT did not. It is always connected using a 4G connection, so you get one huge benefit that Windows RT lacked. It uses a full Windows 10 Implementation so that most Windows applications will run on it. It also improves on the things that Windows RT did well. The machines are thinner, lighter, and have longer battery life than even their Windows RT predecessors, and the build quality, based on pictures of the early prototypes, is far better looking. Most appear to be using a 2-in-1 form factor, allowing this lighter product to become a much more acceptable tablet. Generally, PC 2-in-1s have been too bulky and heavy to also perform as tablets. This initiative creates 2-in-1s that have over 20 hours of battery life and a carry weight that is in line with the iPad Pro. All of this doesn’t come without a cost, however. The early products I’ve seen should price out in the $600-$900 range (depending on vendor and configuration) and they will come with monthly data charges.
So why would you want it?
One of the most attractive benefits from this new class of laptop is true instant on. No sleep, no hibernate; the reason it is true instant on is because, like a cell phone, as long as it has battery life left, it is on. In use, this means that when you open it up, it not only is instantly available, but all the updates, new email, and instant messages are up to date and ready to consume. This is partially why this 20 hours+ battery life is important; these will consume battery even when closed, but they will also get updates and messages in the background, so you aren’t waiting for your stuff to update when you open your laptop.
Being always connected has several advantages. Given the security concerns, the biggest is that you don’t have to use public access points. Many of these access points are rogue and attempting to mine your laptop for data that can be sold, or push malware onto your machine for ransom or to get data the attacker can use. Using WAN is currently far safer. In addition, this means you don’t have to fight to find a network connection. (Given the Wi-Fi isn’t working here now, I can really appreciate this feature.)
Wrapping Up: Always Connected
I’d say you couldn’t beat Intel on x86, but AMD has been quietly doing that for several months now. It was with some surprise that I saw that AMD was on stage for the Qualcomm event. Now what is interesting is that AMD is going after Intel at the high-performance end of the market, and Qualcomm is running at the ultra-mobile side. And AMD is announcing that it is working with Qualcomm to create an always connected high-performance laptop. In effect, Qualcomm and AMD are partnering to provide a range of solutions from those focused on those who have light performance requirements using Qualcomm to those with heavy performance requirements using AMD, both using Qualcomm modems to assure these devices are always connected.
If, and this is a big if, the buyers can become convinced that being connected is the most important part of a new PC, Intel is screwed. Currently, it just isn’t competitive on modems and isn’t ready to compete yet with Qualcomm on this technology. Let me add one more variable. Microsoft is currently run by the firm’s leading advocate on cloud computing, and cloud computing should favor an always connected strategy like this. This means, this round, Intel is effectively against AMD, Microsoft and Qualcomm in terms of strategy, and that should create a dynamic that could dethrone this processor king.
Things just got interesting, but one of these new always connected laptops just became an almost certain part of your future. Lighter, more secure, more productive, and still attractively priced. I think Andy Grove just started spinning in his grave and that Intel’s current CEO is likely looking at his own version of A Christmas Carol (watch out for the Ghost of Christmas Future).
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+