By Duncan McLeod
Two themes dominated the giant Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas last week. One was the incredible advances in television technology; the other was the emergence of thin and lightweight Windows-powered PC laptops called “Ultrabooks”. The Ultrabook category is set to dominate the mobile computing space in 2012. But can Apple, and its MacBook Air, be dethroned?
Two key public events happen in the technology industry each year. The first is in January in Las Vegas, where the consumer electronics industry shows off its latest and greatest TVs, computers and other gadgets and toys. The second is in February in Barcelona, where telecommunications operators, handset makers and others converge to show off and discuss the latest developments in mobile technology.
Apple doesn’t take part in either event. Yet it has for years been a talking point in the corridors, with analysts and media always asking whether Company X’s smartphone can match the iPhone or whether Company Y’s tablet computer will entice consumers away from the iPad. It ’s no different in ultraportable computing.
Ever since Apple introduced its MacBook Air line of ultraportable notebook computers in January 2008 (yes, it’s been four years already), PC makers from Lenovo to Hewlett-Packard have been scrambling to catch up with sexy, affordable, Windows-based alternatives of their own. Until now, most analysts seem to agree, their efforts haven’t produced machines capable of beating or even matching the Air, especially in design and price performance.
However, if developments at CES are an indication of what’s to come, that may change in 2012. It’s thanks to the emergence of the Ultrabook category of thin, light subnotebooks with less power-hungry processors, much improved battery life and super-fast solid-state drives that replace the slower (and cheaper) magnetic hard disk drives traditionally favoured by computer makers.
Some of Apple’s rivals have started to employ the same industrial design techniques so favoured by the late Steve Jobs. This is evident in some of the latest Ultrabooks on display at CES, such as the Zenbook from Asus and the IdeaPad U300s from Lenovo. PC makers appear finally to be embracing creativity in their designs. It’s long overdue.
Chip-maker Intel, the company behind the Ultrabook name and specification, is pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into marketing the machines in an effort to reinvigorate the PC market and get consumers, whose attention is shifting to smartphones and tablets, excited about more traditional computing form factors again.
The form factors themselves are changing, too. Lenovo’s upcoming IdeaPad Yoga, for example, looks like a regular subnotebook, except its screen flips around by 180 degrees, turning it into a powerful Windows-based tablet with a flick of the wrist.
Then there’s the new version of Microsoft’s flagship operating system. Windows 8’s user interface, called Metro, has been redesigned to support the touch interfaces found on tablets. Microsoft hopes the new software will bridge the gap between traditional, keyboard and mouse-driven interfaces and the touch systems found on tablets like the iPad. Early developer previews of the software look promising, prompting Bloomberg Businessweek to put Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer on its latest cover and suggesting that, under his leadership, Microsoft may actually become “cool” again (shock, horror).
They’ve taken their sweet time about it, but PC makers are getting closer to dethroning Apple as the king of affordable subnotebooks. Surely at least one of them will manage to unseat the MacBook Air this year?
- Duncan McLeod is editor of TechCentral; this column is also published in Financial Mail
- Read more columns by McLeod