The XPS 13 ultrabook is selling well above expectations, a Dell executive told CNET this week, offering some hope for the new class of skinny laptops.
"We can't build enough of them at the moment," said Sam Burd, vice president of Dell's Consumer and SMB (small and medium business) product group, speaking about the higher-end laptop announced back in January.
"A little bit less than 3X the expected demand," he said. Burd declined to be more specific, saying Dell "never" discloses numbers.
Still, an upbeat statement about sales -- however nonspecific -- is good news. Industry observers are watching the category closely to see if it can succeed and take some of the wind out of the sails of the MacBook Air and iPad. The latter is selling at a blistering pace of more than 10 million a quarter.
"I'm optimistic in the long run about ultrabooks," said Stephen Baker, an analyst at the NPD Group.
He says PC makers and retailers need to get off the "$399 treadmill" by cutting back on the number of models and making more money off the ones that remain. "Look at the iPad. People are willing to pay $600 or $700 for something that gives them a great experience. Something that looks good and makes them feel comfortable and confident," he said.
The XPS 13 passes the good-looks test. And it's thin and light (0.71 inches, 3 pounds).
But it's not cheap, starting at $999. So, why is it selling so well? "Half the sales of the XPS 13 are coming from enterprise [large corporate] customers. That's a lot of its success," Burd said.
And that's one of the bigger challenges for Dell -- to straddle the consumer and corporate markets with a single design. For those who haven't noticed, Dell is becoming more of a corporate enterprise-centric company and less of a consumer outfit. So, designs like the XPS 13 that appeal to both sets of customers are an imperative.
This trend is sometimes referred to as the "consumerization" of IT: employees bringing their personal devices -- like iPads -- to work.
Burd says the XPS 13 inherits some of the traits that make the iPad and smartphone so popular. "We took the things that an iPad or smartphone does well, in terms of booting up quickly, being highly mobile...and then took that even further. You can do productivity and not lose anything," he said, referring to common business tasks like word processing and spreadsheets.
But it's still corporate-capable. "We can load a company's image on the system, we can put custom BIOS settings on the system, an asset tag so they can track it," he said.
This is a different tack than the company took with its original ultrathin laptop, the Adamo. That aluminum-clad, 0.65-inch thick design -- announced back in early 2009 -- was the first thoughtful response to the MacBook Air from a first-tier PC maker. But it was not marketed alternatively as a corporate workhorse like the XPS 13.
"The [Adamo] design was cutting edge [and] ended up being great looking but an expensive system with less power. It was run off ULV [ultra-low-voltage] processors that at that time were a lot slower," he said. The XPS 13 -- designed in Austin by Dell -- uses much faster Sandy Bridge processors today.
What's next for Dell? "We think touch becomes a pretty interesting option for products that have Windows 8 loaded on them," Burd said. But that won't happen automatically. "Touch adds cost...part of it becoming standard is that people need to see the value of that. It's still a pretty significant added cost, adding capacitive touch," he said.
And expect more XPS and Inspiron (Dell's consumer brand) models later. "We'll have sister, brother products to the XPS 13 that will build out that portfolio and we'll have a new design language for the Inspiron too," he said.