Friday, September 2, 2011

Battle of the Form Factors: Tablets vs. Ultrabooks


A glance at the headlines over the past several weeks makes clear the battle of computing form factors continues to rage. HP announced it will sell or spin off its PC division, including its struggling TouchPad. Meanwhile, in India, Lakshmi Access Communications announced the launch of a new US$99 tablet computer. The tablet, which runs Google's Android OS and connects to the Internet using both Wi-Fi and 3G networks, comes only a few weeks after Bharti Airtel and Reliance Communications launched tablets to compete with Apple's iPad and Samsung's Galaxy Tab. In the United States, Intel said it would invest US$300 million in companies that develop new technologies for Ultrabooks, a class of thin and light laptops, signaling that the company believes there is still a market for the notebook form factor.


These announcements recall the debut of OLPC's ultra-low-cost XO laptop several years ago and the subsequent netbook craze. The netbook category, which took off and then promptly fizzled, was a response to demand for low-cost computing devices that were lighter, consumed less power and accessed most functions and content via the Internet. Yet its demise illustrated that fickle consumer preferences and technological convergence, especially coupled with the rise of mobile networks, can cause a category to stall just as quickly as it rose. Companies, like Intel, may be hoping that snazzy devices combining the best features of the tablet, smartphone and laptop form factors might help drive demand for devices packing its higher-margin processors. This is especially true in emerging markets where consumers may own just one or two devices and demanding more functionality from each device. 


While it may be impossible to predict device trends with any accuracy (few foresaw the tablet boom), it is fair to say that only categories that address both a deep consumer need and align with market characteristics will have staying power. Purchasing power, evolving tastes and ICT infrastructure will continue to drive consumer decisions in both developed countries and emerging markets. A differentiated device strategy that caters to local market characteristics and needs can help multinational firms capitalize on convergence trends in diverse markets.

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