Market research firm Techaisle projects SMBs will buy some 3.6 million ultrabooks--the notebook's slimmer, younger sibling--in 2012, accounting for one in five of all PCs purchased by smaller companies this year. Its forecast excludes the Macbook Air from the category--noteworthy, among other reasons, because of the iPad's domination to date in the tablet market.
If you're inclined to doubt a significant boom in Windows-based ultrabooks, you're not without reason. Of the 1,000 or so U.S.-based SMBs (1-1,000 employees) that Techaisle surveyed at the end of 2011, just 23% were aware the form factor even existed. Yet Techaisle CEO Anurag Agrawal notes that nearly two-thirds of SMBs that do have ultrabooks on their radar plan to purchase them in the coming year. Among the factors driving their interest: Light weight, portability, battery life, instant-on boot times, and increased business functionality relative to tablets.
[ Learn more about the new ultrabook models. Read CES 2012 Preview: Ultrabooks Everywhere. ]
Some key things need to happen this year, though, to give way to the rise of the ultrabook inside SMBs. A 2012 release date for Windows 8 would help--Agrawal said the tablet-esque interface will be a good fit for ultrabook users and drive interest in the category. More importantly, costs must come down to shrink the current gap with notebook pricing. Some 62% of SMBs that intend to buy ultrabooks said they're waiting for prices to drop before placing an order.
"There's obviously the hiccup of the price, because at this point in time it is still a major issue," Agrawal said. "But by the looks of it, they do feel that ultrabooks would be an ideal replacement for the notebook."
Indeed, 51% of SMBs planning to buy ultrabooks view them as notebook replacements. Another interesting finding: 91% of SMBs with plans to add ultrabooks said they'd love the ability to run Android apps on the machines.
Techaisle's projection also banks on key manufacturers making ultrabook product announcements in the not-so-distant future. Agrawal notes that much of the non-Apple ultrabook activity to date has been driven by the likes of Acer and Asus, makers with little-to-no traction in the U.S. SMB market. "SMBs are waiting for the ultrabook announcements to come from Dell, HP, and Lenovo before they really start to go out and purchase this new form factor," Agrawal said.
Another dynamic at play: Smaller businesses that buy their computers at retail outlets like Fry's or Best Buy may start to hear more sales spiels for ultrabooks. Agrawal and his team recently visited those and other chains across the United States and found the volume of those pitches increasing. "In effect, these retail stores are also getting primed to gently nudge potential buyers toward an ultrabook," Agrawal.
Agrawal acknowledged there are other unknowns that could hinder adoption. A fine example: the firm's research found that many SMBs don't know that ultrabooks typically have solid-state drives with limited storage capacity. Buyers that want, say, a 250-GB hard drive, would stick with their notebooks or desktops. Nonetheless, Agrawal is confident in Techaisle's ultrabook projection, particularly when looking at how quickly SMBs took to tablets last year.
"If ultrabooks start to come down [in price], we'll reach these numbers quite quickly," Agrawal said, adding that lower costs will also spur consumerization. "A consumer is not really going to buy a $900 ultrabook and bring it to work when a laptop is available for $599. They'd rather invest their dollars in a tablet."
As already noted by InformationWeek's Thomas Claburn, "the year of the tablet" was really "the year of the iPad." Could the same become true for ultrabooks and Macbook Air?
"I don't think so," Agrawal said, pointing to the lion's share of SMBs that run on Windows and will want their ultrabooks to do the same. Sure, Mac offices and individual users will find a place for the Air. But budgets will, as always, be a decision-making force in the bigger picture.
"SMBs are a very price-conscious segment where the Macbook Air does not fit," Agrawal said. "It's not going to really establish itself and be as potent a force as iPad is."
According to our Outlook 2012 Survey, IT should expect soaring demand but cautious hiring as companies use technology to try to get closer to customers. Also in the new, all-digital issue of InformationWeek: Inside Windows Server 8. (Free registration required.)