/i/story/62/72/005643/2012-mobile-state-of-the-union.jpgIt is the time of year to turn our thoughts to what the mobile space will be like in 2012. In this three-part series, I will take a look at three major sectors in mobile: smartphones, tablets, and laptops. This series will appear over the next three days, given the short week in the U. S. due to the holiday. In part 3, I look at notebooks in 2012.
The rapidly changing mobile space
The mobile space moves at breakneck speed, especially the last few years. We have seen the cell phone go from an expensive business tool to a gadget that is owned by most people. The giant brick mobile phone evolved into the thin slice of today's smartphone. Never in history have so many of the world's population held so much computing power in their hands, and the precense of social networks brings world events to our pockets.
In the last decade we have seen the birth of the tablet, and watched it transform from a heavy slab to the thin slate of today. Millions have discovered that a tablet, a mobile device can fill almost all their computing needs, and many believe a post-PC era has begun.
Over the same ten years the laptop has become the main computer for many consumers and the enterprise, as the convenience of a computing system in one piece at an attractive price beats the old school system of multiple components all wired together. The laptop has changed from a giant, heavy, heat generator with poor battery life to a thin, highly portable form with the ability to run nearly all day on a single charge.
Turning our eyes to the mobile space in 2012, we will see a continuing evolution in all three of these mobile sectors. Rather than earthshaking breakthroughs in mobile technology, importantly we will see the mobile device play an increasing more significant role in society. More folks will continue to tap into the global community than ever before, and mobile technology will be the tool that brings more of the world together.
Next year will be an important year for notebooks with tablets gradually eating into laptop sales numbers. Intel is hunkering down with major players in the laptop sector to shove as many Ultrabooks out the door as possible. While Ultrabook is just a trademarked marketing term, the thin, light notebooks will gain traction with customers given the good performance and long battery life they bring to the table. The rise of the Ultrabook with solid-state disks (SSDs) instead of hard drives will usher in the beginning of the end for the spinning disk.
Enterprise class laptops will still be around in 2012, as companies want volume solutions cheaper than possible with early Ultrabook pricing. OEMs will get pricing for the Ultrabook down as volume ramps up next year, and at a certain level companies will start looking at the thin laptops. This will be aided by the appearance of Ultrabooks with mobile broadband integration, particularly rapid 4G connectivity.
Consumers will continue to leave the notebook behind in favor of cheaper tablets. Exposure to the tablet has demonstrated to a segment of the consumer market that they don't really need a "real" computer at home. This will continue to eat into the sales numbers for consumer notebooks, and will force some major laptop makers to start focusing more on the enterprise segment. This switch started this year when HP announced it would close its consumer laptop business, then changed its mind due to supply chain benefits. The consumer laptop market is a relatively low margin segment compared to the enterprise.
The major players in the laptop world will continue to be Lenovo, Apple, Acer, ASUS, and Dell. These five companies will ship a lot of notebooks, but perhaps not as many as in 2011 due to the tablet situation as noted. As more product lines switch over to the thin and light models, notebook production may be impacted by a shortage of SSDs that we may see in 2012. These are hard to manufacture in numbers while keeping the quality high enough, and suppliers are going to be taxed trying to keep up with demand.
Another change we will see in 2012 is the inclusion of touch screens on laptops in greater numbers. This will be done to take advantage of the new Windows 8 that will come to market in the second half of next year. Windows 8 has the Metro interface that, while it works with mouse and keyboard, it is optimized for operation by touch. I don't like operating notebooks by touch as I find that to be uncomfortable, but others may like it fine. We'll see how the market reacts to this and Windows 8 on the notebook next year. The enterprise laptop market will continue to go with Windows 7 and largely ignore Windows 8, as it doesn't bring enough to the table to entice corporations to incur the big cost of upgrading.
Apple will continue refreshing both the MacBook Air and OS X, as it gradually slows down production of desktops and the MacBook Pro. Prices for the MacBook Air will come down again next year, and it will continue to grab the lion's share of Apples computer sales. Touch will play an even bigger role in MacBook operation next year, as Apple continue to make OS X more iOS-like for the future. I expect to see a MacBook Air in 2012 as cheap as $800, which will put the Ultrabook makers on alert.
The lowly netbook will still be around next year, but in ever-dwindling numbers. Most of the laptop market wants bigger screens and better performance than the netbook delivers, and consumers are willing to pay higher prices for it. For those who find the small displays and Atom processor to be sufficient, netbooks for $200 should be available, although with fewer choices as OEMs move to the higher margin laptops.