For the past few years, Apple's presence has hung over the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) like the dark shadow of Mordor in Tolkien's classicLord of the Rings series. But not this year: The big news makers at the 2012 CES are product lines designed specifically to compete with two of Apple's most successful offerings. And unlike in years past, it seems that Apple's competitors have finally gotten it right.
The products I'm referring to, of course, are Ultrabooks and Android-based tablets. (Android has already overrun Apple in the smartphone market.)
According to Intel, which had helped Apple create the thin-and-light MacBook Air, PC makers are announcing more than 75 new Ultrabook designs at CES this year. These machines are similar to the MacBook Air in that they're also thin and light. But they differ from Apple's products in many ways. Most important, they're generally less expensive than any MacBook Air, and some are dramatically less expensive. They're also more diverse products, with screen sizes ranging from 11" all the way up to 15". They provide a wider range of ports, capabilities, and expansion opportunities. In short, although Ultrabooks are clearly modeled after the MacBook Air, they will take this market segment to new heights as well.
Virtually any PC maker you can name has announced new Ultrabook designs this week, including traditional major players like Dell, HP, and Lenovo, as well as the later generation of manufacturers such as Acer, ASUS, and Samsung. But there are new companies entering the PC market as well, casting doubt on all those doomsayers who believe that the PC has run its course. Key among these is TV maker Vizio, whose Ultrabook designs are particularly impressive. (The company also announced very interesting laptop and all-in-one PC models at the show.)
And that's before Windows 8 hits: All of the Ultrabook designs announced thus far are aimed at Microsoft's current OS, Windows 7, which is still selling at a clip of 20 million units per month. When Windows 8 arrives, it will be accompanied by a wide range of Ultrabooks and other PC designs, again from every imaginable PC maker on Earth. There will also be hybrid devices that come in unique designs in which the screen detaches or reverses back onto the device to create a tablet-like user experience, or can otherwise be used as a traditional laptop. It's a brave new world.
Speaking of tablets, after a year of me-too products with Apple-like high prices, Android vendors have finally figured out that beating the Cupertino electronics giant is actually pretty simple: Just lower prices and create more diverse product lines. And they're doing just that: Android tablets have sprung up around CES like worms after a rainstorm, and they range in size from tiny, phone-like devices with 5" screens to 12" monster tablets, and everything in between. The pricing, finally, is lowball, with some Android tablets set to enter the market at under $150, and those that compete directly with Apple's iPad costing $100 to $200 less per device.
This strategy will enable both Ultrabook and tablet makers to do to Apple what PC makers did before to the Mac and smartphone vendors did to the iPhone: create a wider, more diverse system of devices that are all compatible with each other (i.e., use the same software and services) but aren't compatible with what Apple sells. And by cutting prices to a more reasonable level than Apple can sustain, they're guaranteeing that Apple's market share in each market will only fall in the current year.
I'm not suggesting that Apple will disappear or be beaten back into some Mac-like niche market. Indeed, the general computing market of the near future will be far more diverse than was the PC market, and more heterogeneous. Apple will of course play a big role in that future. But the company's dominance of thin-and-light computing and tablet devices is over. Starting this year, the MacBook Air and iPad are just two of many, many choices. And increasingly, consumers will choose the less expensive, no-compromises options over Apple's more expensive and more limited choices.
Apple appears to understand the shift. A "sheepish" Apple VP of worldwide iPod, iPhone, and iOS product marketing, Greg Joswiak was spotted on the CES show floor this week by paidContent. With his "strategically arranged" show badge hiding his identity, he admitted that he was checking up on the competition.
I suspect his report back at the mothership will be an interesting one.