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I’ll admit it, I have a love-hate relationship with Android. I love it as a phone choice, love it on 7” tablets, but think it provides a lousy experience on anything 10” display and above. I’m not alone as Android has captured 75% of the smartphone market but hasn’t had big success in the 10” and above category. Companies like Acer and Asus are now venturing into some very dangerous territory and some of their new Android products risk ending up like previous 10”+ Android devices. I’d like to begin with some Android tablet perspective.
It’s hard to believe that up until a year ago, Android had no tablet market to speak of. Android tablets had really been defined by market debacles like the Motorola Xoom. Samsung cranked out some interesting, high-res 10” tablets and Asus delivered some inspiring detachables, but none of them sold very well. Then came Google IO 2012 and the introduction of the Nexus 7, which redefined the volume tablet market. As Apple and Amazon followed with their new 7-8” offerings, the entire tablet market swung toward smaller screens and cheaper tablets. Even though there some excitement around the Nexus 10, on the whole, 10” Android tablets continued to sit, uninspired. What’s going on here?
The challenge with 10” Android tablets is all about apps, which goes all the way back to the first Android tablets. In fact, there are so few tablet apps that there isn’t even a way to segregate the app store to do a decent count of them. That’s when you know very few apps exist. This is a bit of a chicken and egg problem and Google hasn’t yet dug itself out of this hole yet. So why aren’t devs creating apps for the Android 10” platform?
Devs right now are confused about the Google large display ecosystem. I say “Google” and not “Android” because some devs see what Google and partners are doing with Chrome and need to first decide between Chrome and Android. They see Chrome notebooks selling well on Amazon but they are not seeing big optimism on 10”+ Android devices. Developers are confused and when it gets to the point of lock-up, stick with the safe bet, iPad.
In the end, it’s the consumers who suffer. You can install a 4” Android app on a 10” tablet, but many times it gets stretched to the point where the app is unusable. Imagine how that 4” app looks on that 20” display. Well, about twice as bad as the 10” display. All kidding aside, it is the consumer who feels the pain after they get home and try it out and expect an experience that just works. For users who stay in email, the browser, and a few optimized games it’s probably fine, but for those users who use many apps, the experience will be suboptimal. This brings us to the new Acer and Asus SKUs.
Acer has launched a 21.5” all-in-one with Android 4.0 (ICS) with a very slow OMAP 4430 that’s in the Kindle Fire tablet and Google Glass and 8GB of storage. Given what is under the hood, I can only imagine how anemic this system will be, regardless of the lack of apps. Asus has launched the “Transformer Book Trio”, a 12” two operating system (Android/Windows), dual architecture (Intel Haswell/Intel Clovertrail), tri-modal UI (Metro/Desktop/Android), and tri-modal physical (tablet/notebook/desktop). This is clearly not for the technology weary as bundles nearly every possible confusing variable to a general consumer. Aside from these variables, like the Acer AIO, it will stretch many 4”-designed apps to 12”, providing a less-than optimal user experience. Let me close in on answering the original question.
Are the latest Android 10”+ devices DOA? Yes, they are until Google can motivate application developers to create more Android apps that work well, and not stretched from 4” to 10” to 12” to 21”.
Windows 8 hasn’t spurred a boom in PC sales, but it certainly is inspiring some unusual hardware designs. The problem, though, is that no one seems able to quite master Windows’ touch and keyboard-plus-mouse dual personality.
Acer is the latest to try with the Aspire R7, a striking departure from a company not particularly know for adventurous design. Aimed at what the company calls the “duality of touch and typing,” the R7 is a convertible 15.6″ notebook with a unique “Ezel” hinge that allows the screen to move from a conventional laptop position to horizontal to reversed (for presentations.) It also can lie flat in a slate configuration, but at 5.3 lb. (2.4 kg) it’s unlikely to see a lot of tablet use.
I can see uses for both the horizontal and the reversed positions. It’s the more conventional arrangement that is, in fact, the oddest. The most strikingly unconventional thing about the R7 is the layout of the keyboard deck. The keyboard itself is placed at the very front of the deck, with a large touchpad above it. Yes, you read that correctly. The touchpad is above to top row of keys.
The display can be set up in two positions. In one (photo top), the bottom end of the screen sits just above the top of the keyboard, covering the touchpad and looking a bit like a gigantic version of an iPad sitting in a keyboard case. In the other (photo left), the screen opens like a conventional clamshell. I spent a little time using the R7 in both configurations. The screen-forward setup is more convenient for touchscreen use since the display is closer to your hand position on the keys. But in my experience with Windows 8 so far, the limited availability and frequently poor quality of “Modern” (or Metro) apps means I spend most of my time using legacy desktop applications, And since these are not built for touch, they generally don’t work very well without a mouse or touchpad.
In alternative setup, the strange location of the touchpad is a real problem. When I am working in a typing application, I typically use my thumbs for most simple touchpad maneuvers, which lets me control the mouse without moving my hands from the keyboard. There’s no similar simple stretch available to reach the R7 touchpad. Furthermore, most of us now have 15 years practice with below-the-keyboard pointing devices and will spend a lot of time on the R7 poking at empty space. I hope to spend some more time with the R7 soon; perhaps the discomfort of using that oddly placed touchpad will go away quickly.
Microsoft could make this problem mostly go away by fully touch enabling Windows and key Windows applications. Maybe the Windows Blue update due in the fall will help, but there are depressing reports that a fully touch-ready Office won’t arrive until the fall of 2014.
The Acer Aspire P3 takes a different approach to the duality problem. Though billed as a convertible Ultrabook, its design is much more like a Microsoft Surface Pro, a Core i5-powered tablet with a detachable Bluetooth keyboard. But in a sad concession to reality, it offers one thing the Surface doesn’t: A built-in stylus holder on the tablet.
There has been a lot of industry skepticism since Intel predicted at Computex Taipei 2011 that Ultrabooks would account for 40% of consumer portable sales by the end of 2012. That included skepticism from me as well, and I continue to have that skepticism. Rather than dive into that discussion though, I think it’s more important and productive to examine how Intel could conceivably achieve that goal.
What Intel is Actually Predicting
It’s important to understand what Intel means when they made their prediction. First, they are making the prediction for the consumer market, not the slower moving SMB, government, or enterprise markets. Also, the prediction is not for the entire year, it is for the end of December, 2012. That is, 40% of consumer notebooks by the end of December 2012 would need to be Ultrabooks. This makes a huge difference when evaluating the probability of this actually occurring.
So what would it take for 40% of all consumer notebook sales to be Ultrabooks by the end of 2012?
Make Ultrabooks Look New, Relevant, and Sexy
Intel and their ecosystem need make Ultrabooks perceived as new, relevant and sexy. By relevant I mean making the direct connection between what the Ultrabook delivers and what the consumer thinks they need. Sexy, is, well sexy, like MacBook Airs. The ecosystem must make a connection with:
- Thin and light– this is easier because Apple has blazed the trail and it is evident on the retail shelf.
- Fast startup– this is somewhat straightforward and a communicated consumer pain point with Windows today
- Secure– this is the most difficult in that it is always difficult to market a negative. It’s like life insurance; it sounds good, people say it’s important, then don’t buy it. I think Intel would be much more successful taking the same base technology and enabling exclusive consumer content or speeding up the on-line checkout or login process.
- Performance- this is difficult to market in that no longer does performance have a comparable metric and chip makers have appeared to stop marketing why it is even important.
- Convertibles- I am a big fan of future convertibles given the right design and OS. If OEMs can put together a classy, ~18mm design, it could very well motivate consumers to delay a tablet purchase. This will not work prior to Windows 8’s arrival, though because you really need Metro for good touch.
Probably the biggest impediment here is the “sexy” piece. Sexy is the “X” factor here. It’s cool to have an Apple MacBook Air. It isn’t cool yet to have an Ultrabook. A lot of that $300M UltraBook investment fund must pay for the Ultrabook positioning and re-positioning of anything Windows. This is a tough task, to say the least.
Steal Some Apple MacBook Air Market Share
Intel and their ecosystem, to hit the 40% target, will need to steal some of Apple’s market share. There is no way around this to achieve the 40% target unless they want to pull the dreaded “price lever”. Apple “owns” 90+% of the premium notebook market today and because Windows OEMs and Intel for that matter aren’t motivated to trash pricing now, they will need to steal some of Apple’s share. This will be a tough one, a real tough one particularly in that Intel shoots itself in the foot short-term by going aggressively after this one given they are inside every MacBook Air. So OEMs will need to take this one on their own, using Intel marketing funds as a weapon. This will be especially difficult given that Apple positioning isn’t going to be instantly erased by anything short term and Windows OEMs haven’t been able to penetrate this for years. Remember the Dell Adamo? Sexy, Windows 8 convertible designs could very well be the magic pill that could help steal share from Apple.
Lower Price Points
This is the last lever anyone wants to pull as it destroys positioning. Depending which data service you look at, the average consumer notebook ASP (average selling price) is between $600-700. This seems high, I know, when you look at what is being sold at local retailers, but remember that this includes on-line and Apple which has a higher ASP. Ultrabooks range from around $799 to $1,299 excluding Apple. This is well above the prices it would need to be to achieve the 40% goal. There are two ways to lower price; lower the cost or lower margins. I believe you will see a little bit of both.
As volumes increase, there will be immediate cost savings in expensive mechanicals like aluminum, plastic, and composites. Custom cooling solutions are very expensive required to cool thin chassis between 16-21mm in thickness. Tooling and design cost can be amortized over greater volumes to decrease the cost per unit. Intel Ivy Bridge, available in April 2012, will provide a shrink from 32nm to 22nm which would theoretically allow a lower price point at the same performance point, although I am sure Intel isn’t leading with that promise. Intel would much rather provide large marketing subsidies and pay NRE (non recurring engineering) costs to retailers and OEMS to design and promote the Ultrabook category. SSD is a tricky one to predict given spinning hard drive supply issues. Spinning hard drive price increases allow SSD makers to increase prices which doesn’t bode well for Ultrabook BOM costs in the short term.
Leverage Windows 8 Effect
The expected Windows 8 launch for the holiday of 2012 could help the Ultrabook cause on many fronts. First, it may give consumers a reason to consider buying a new laptop or notebook. I fully expect consumers to delay purchases and wait for Windows 8 to arrive. This could create a bubble in Q4 that, again, helps achieve the 40% goal.
Finally, Ultrabooks need to get off to a solid start in 2012. Consumer influencers and the rest of the ecosystem needs to perceive UltraBooks as a success in 1H/2012 for them to “double-down” for 2H/2012. CES will be one tactic to do this, where I expect to see 100s of designs on display to demonstrate OEM acceptance to the press, analysts, and retail partners. Intel’s Ivy Bridge will give another boost in April, followed by the Windows 8 launch. Retailers cannot be stuck with excess inventory and cannot make drastic price cuts that would only deposition the category. Currently there is skepticism on the entire Ultrabook value proposition and the price points they can command so there is a lot of work to be done.
Will Ultrabooks Achieve the 40% Target by End of 2012
While this analysis is about what it would take to achieve the goal, I must weigh on what I think will happen. I like to bucket these kinds of things into “possible” and “probable”. I believe that if the Ultrabook ecosystem could accomplish everything outlined above, Ultrabooks could hit 40% of consumer notebook sales by the end of 2012. So it is possible, BUT, I don’t see it as probable, primarily due to the low price points that it will need to be hit. There just isn’t enough time to reposition a Windows notebook as premium and either raise price points of the Windows notebook category or steal Apple market share.
If any of you have gone out to buy a laptop computer lately, you may have asked yourself “do I need a laptop or could I get by with a tablet?” We know from our research that this question is top of mind with a lot of consumers these days as tablets have really clouded their thinking when it comes to new laptop purchases.
Last summer, when the PC vendors were planning their spring collection of laptops, consumer tablets were still in their infancy. Apple’s iPad had some serious interest from consumers but at that time, it had only been on the market for a few months and the vendors did not see it as a threat to their laptop business. But by the holiday season they realized that Apple not only had a hit on their hands but also were pushing more and more non-PC vendors to jump on the tablet bandwagon. They also saw that Apple’s iPad and Google’s Android tablets were starting to get serious attention from potential laptop buyers.
But the problem for the PC vendors is that the projection of cannibalization of laptops by tablets is also all over the map. Some financial analysts that I talk to who cover the PC vendors think that tablets could cannibalize as much as 50% of the laptop business for traditional PC vendors by 2014. In my talks with PC vendors, they currently fear that tablets could impact their total laptop sales by more then 10-12% over the next three years.
However, a new report from Bernstein Research Analyst Toni Sacconaghi is challenging this assumption. John Paczkowski over at the AllThingsD blog shared the reports findings and added some thoughts in his article. Sacconaghi believes that tablets are not cannibalizing notebooks but are instead converging with them. He postulates that a product like Apple’s MacBook Air, with its thin and light design, is more synergistic to Apple’s iPad. And that it represents a broader convergence of the tablet and notebook designs.
He is on to something here. If you look at the key trends in processor designs that focus on very low voltage yet high performance, you see that PC vendors now have the technology to create very thin and light laptops that in some ways work the same way. With a tablet, all you need is a Bluetooth keyboard and it in essence is a notebook. What’s more, if you take a very thin and light laptop and put a touch screen on it that can be folded back or slid down, you have a tablet.
Mr. Saccononaghi also says “ironically, availability of such notebook devices might undermine tablets sales rather then vice versa.” That is a possibility. But the blurring may really come through what we call Hybrids or sliders. When I was in Taipei a few weeks ago I saw a couple of products called sliders. The one officially launched was the Asus slider but I also saw one behind the scenes that will be ready for the holidays that was even cooler then the one from Asus. Both work like a laptop when the screen is slid up and then works like a tablet when the screen is slid down. A tablet and laptop all-in-one!
We see this hybrid slider as the device that actually does blur the two devices into one and could end up driving a portion of the market to buy products like these instead of a laptop or a tablet individually. However these designs still have small 10.1 inch screens and laptop users – who are used to larger screens to work with – may be intrigued by this design but still opt for a laptop and a tablet if they feel the need both.
What’s interesting is that if you consider a tablet a portable computer and lump them into total portable computer sales, Apple would be the #1 portable computer maker in the market today with HP being a distant second.
In the end I believe it will come down to personal choices. If a person uses their computers more for productivity, then a laptop is still needed. But if they mostly use computers for content consumption, then a tablet is more ideal for them.
Either way, consumers will end up with a lot of compelling choices and form factors for ultra light computing and will buy the ones that make sense for them. And for the PC industry, the amount of portable computers shipped starting in 2013 will increase by at least 50%. The big question when we get to 2015 though will be who the real Apple challengers will be and how much market share Apple will still own in both the ultra light laptop and tablets markets by the middle of the decade.
One of the things I look at in order to get an idea of what the next years worth of innovations will bring is the semiconductor industry. Given what I am seeing from the various ARM vendors like NVIDIA, Qualcomm, Marvell and TI as well as from Intel and AMD, I am encouraged.
The primary industry that stands to gain from new semiconductor innovations is the mobile industry. Namely the hot category of tablets and smart phones. That is not to say that the PC will be left out, for example Intel brought attention to the concept of “Ultra-Books” at this years Computex.
Continue reading 2012: A Year of Innovation?
I ask this question specifically because this is the question those who make PC’s are asking. In particular this initiative to make the PC relevant again is being driven by Intel and in part by AMD. This sounds rather silly because of course the PC is still relevant, the fact of the matter is the PC has become boring.
PC’s are mainstream and there isn’t much interesting about them these days. Consumers are familiar with them and understand what they are and what they are good for. Consumers are more interested in learning about things like smart phones and tablets to which they are still in discovery mode with.
Continue reading Will UltraBooks Make PCs Interesting Again?