Ultrabooks won't help the laptop industry

Hewlett-Packard

COMMENTARY At the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES), it seems to be the year of the ultrabook. Intel (INTC) has been pushing its ultra-thin notebook reference design as a way to counter Apple's (AAPL) MacBook Air, which manages to keep growing in popularity even as the PC industry thrashes about, going nowhere in particular.

Even though consumers are likely to greet the designs with some warmth -- after all, it is a copy of what has worked for Apple -- ultrabooks won't be the smashing success that Intel and its hardware partners want. That's because as the nature of computing changes, fewer people will need or want full out notebooks or laptops. There's too much power in tablets and smartphones.

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Consumers largely don't care

Poll Position is a social media company focusing on running opt-in polls. Largely their results aren't representative and, thus, don't say anything that is meaningful in a larger context. However, the company did just conduct a scientific telephone poll, asking a number of questions, including, "Do you think that electronic tablets (such as the iPad) will eventually take the place of laptop computers?"

The results show that 46 percent of those surveyed thought that tablets would supplant laptops and notebooks. Just over a third thought they wouldn't.

Poll Position

That's a significant number. Notice that it doesn't mean all those people will buy tablets instead of laptops and notebooks. However, it shows an important consumer attitude. If people view tablets as eventually taking over for laptops, why would they buy the bigger, more expensive machine?

Been here before

PC vendors have previously run into similar roadblocks. Consumers don't buy into the strategic plans of the vendors. Remember the netbook craze? A few years ago, for example, vendors strode into CES sure that they had found the next big thing: Netbooks. And those underpowered and undersized machines did see some good adoption -- at first.

However, then people realized that the tiny machines didn't offer a good combination of enough oomph for the price and size. Keyboards were small for the typing-centric paradigm and Microsoft demanded that the devices not be too powerful, lest they compete with more mainstream laptops that represented higher margins to the company.

As Scott Stein at our sister site CNET notes, the industry has also shot itself in the foot regarding ultrabooks. Intel will have a next generation of processors coming out later this year, and Microsoft (MSFT) has Windows 8 scheduled for later. The message to savvier consumers is to wait for something better.

Selective selling

Trying to put tablets back into a coffin-shaped box won't happen. Intel, HP (HPQ), Lenovo, Toshiba, and others will have to be smart to move enough units that the new product category doesn't seem dead on arrival. Luckily for them, Poll Position's numbers show that there could be significant opportunities in market segmentation.

As the first set of numbers shows, there are some significant differences in attitudes, depending on age. Ironically, the 18- to 29-year-olds are relatively strong in thinking that tablets won't replace laptops. Furthermore, there's a big gender gap, as well:

Poll Position

The PC industry should consider focusing on younger consumers and women to push their products. Not that it will do them much good in the long run. Eventually tablets will push laptops and notebooks out of the way for most consumers, who are primarily interested in such activities as email, watching videos, and surfing the Web. Add reading e-books and electronic periodicals and tablets take the lead.

When markets change, vendors have no choice but to change with them. That so many in the PC space have been unable to create compelling tablet experiences shows how much danger they're already in.

  • Erik Sherman On Twitter»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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