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Bridging the gap: adapting laptops to survive

by Andrew Stillwell , 27.11.2012

2012 has been a tough year for PC and laptop vendors. A weak global economy coupled with cannibalization from smartphones and tablets means the PC industry is forecast to shrink for the first time in a decade this year. The combination of this and the launch of Windows 8 has created something of a ‘perfect storm’ of new devices as vendors develop their products to meet the changing demands of the consumer and business end-users.

The introduction of Windows 8 has been a key development for laptop vendors as Microsoft has built a software which prioritizes touchscreen technology. This significant enhancement has opened a holistic Windows experience to a wider range of devices than ever before. It enables these vendors to improve their devices in areas where smartphones and tablets currently reign supreme. In other words, smartphones and tablets focus on the user interface and touchscreen capabilities and are seen as the most convenient tools for consuming content (i.e. surfing the web, looking at photo’s, listening to music, reading the news, and online shopping), while laptops remain hard to beat for content creation (i.e. writing articles or reports, storing and analysing data, and creating presentations). For many consumers, the latter is a secondary consideration.

Indeed, with consumers focused on content consumption, mobility, and connectivity, and absorbed by the cutting-edge image of smartphones and tablets, laptop vendors are struggling to compete. While this trend is taking longer to permeate business due to the reasons discussed in a previous blog article – primarily those linked to content creation – developments in smartphones and, in particular, tablets, are gradually bringing this threat into the workplace. Laptop vendors urgently need to develop products that provide all the benefits of their existing devices alongside the user experience, mobility, and connectivity offered by tablets.

This has led vendors to release a range of ‘hybrid’ or ‘convertible’ PC’s. As CEO and president of Lenovo, Yang Yuanqing, put it, "Now is an era for traditional PCs to undergo a revolution and create new products. In the future we believe the convertible PC will become the new standard for the laptop industry.". Meanwhile, the impact of Windows 8 was summarized by regional director of Asus, Leon Yu, "Windows 8 is the bridge that has allowed Asus to blur former device categorizations and spawn a new generation of products that bring touch, the next phase in human-computer interactivity, to a wide range of traditionally keyboard-based enterprise, creativity and entertainment applications". HP, Toshiba, and Dell are other major laptop manufacturers that have emphasized both the need to innovate and the opportunity presented by Windows 8.

And such devices are coming through to market. Devices combining the functionality of a laptop with a smaller, lighter, more mobile physical form and increased connectivity (such as Wi-Fi and 3/4G) have been released. These include devices where the screen is detachable from the keyboard and used as a touchscreen tablet to those that slide open or closed to offer either a keyboard/screen experience or pure tablet size and touchscreen experience.

The device which is the current hot topic in tech circles is the ‘ultrabook’. Introduced by Intel (which is in the process of applying to trademark this word), the aim of the device is to produce a notebook computer designed to provide similar or superior functions to a standard laptop (so thinner and lighter with longer battery life and greater connectivity) combined with the additional physical flexibility discussed above (including touchscreens and keyboards which can be detached or hidden). In short, ultrabooks are positioned to offer the key benefits of both the laptop and the tablet, and are hence expected to be a hit with consumers and business end-users. Vendors hope they will contend with the Macbook Air which has made a significant dent in the Windows-based laptop market. Relatively high prices are currently limiting the potential for widespread usage but they are expected to become more popular as awareness develops and prices decline as competition enters the market.

These new devices, and Windows 8, are likely to be of particular interest to businesses currently caught in the conundrum of supporting devices for employees that meet the needs of both their work and home lives. There are also internal groups, such as sales, marketing, or design, for whom a more cutting-edge, portable, and connectable device than a traditional laptop may be appropriate. Therefore, these developments also open the door of the ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD) trend wider, encouraging yet more personally-owned devices to be brought into the workplace due to their versatility as both business and consumer-friendly tools. As previously discussed in a previous blog article, this is a growing headache for business IT teams and something they will be wary of.

For their part, tablet vendors are also striving to bridge the tablet-laptop gap by improving the facility for content creation. The slew of Windows 8 based tablets simultaneously coming to market is testament to their belief that a tablet offering Windows 8 has the potential to be very popular. They are also releasing an ever-growing range of hardware accessories (including attachable keyboards), continuously developing apps to enable users to create content, and adding the security they need to rival laptops as business tools. The tablet market is currently estimated to be worth approximately US$29 billion. As a result, there are many tablet makers who will be working in this area to ensure they stay highly competitive.

As the range of different devices available widens and their physical form develops, consumers and business end-users will be able to choose which best meets their needs. As yet, it’s unclear which devices will prove the greatest success. However, it’s possible 2012 will be seen as the year when developments in hardware and software came together to provide the basis for the devices of the future.

 

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