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CES 2012 Preview: Ultrabooks Everywhere

The big question will be whether ultrabooks prove to be affordable enough to compete with tablets and smartphones.
Inside Apple's New Grand Central Super Store
Inside Apple's New Grand Central Super Store
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
The 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show returns to Las Vegas, Nev., on Tuesday, January 10, and the tech trade show is bringing with it expectations of ultrabooks.

Just as 2011 was dubbed "the year of the tablet" by the wishful thinkers--it turned out to be the year of the iPad--2012 is being called "the year of the ultrabook."

In other words, 2012 is "the year of the MacBook Air and its imitators," though Taiwan's DigiTimes suggests makers of ultrabooks will have a hard time matching the MacBook Air's price.

And price matters, particularly given the current economic climate. A recent IDC report on ultrabooks observes, "Global economic conditions have restrained consumer discretionary spending in many areas, including electronics. Consumers may not perceive incremental value from an Ultrabook-class PC in proportion to the premium price, especially as 'good enough' computing options cost less than half than those of an Ultrabook PC."

Mac sales have grown faster than PC sales for the past 32 consecutive quarters and the MacBook Air, having filled the space left by the discontinuation of the MacBook, now accounts for more than 28% of Apple's U.S. notebook sales, up from just 8% in May.

PC makers are rushing ultrabooks to market in response to the MacBook Air's strong reception and consumer affinity for tablets, having evidently been caught unaware that portable devices can never be too thin.

Matthew Wilkins, principal analyst of computer platforms at consultancy IHS, suggests that notebook PCs must go on a diet to match the appeal of media tablets, not to mention the MacBook Air. "With media tablets having already reversed the expansion of the previously fast-growing netbook platform, PC makers now are keenly aware that the notebook must evolve to maintain market growth and relevance," he said in November. "Enter the ultrabook, which borrows some of the form-factor and user-interface advantages of the media tablet to enhance the allure of the venerable notebook."

[ Click here to rewind: Read CES 2011: Catching Up With Apple. ]

IHS iSuppli projects ultrabooks will make up 43% of global PC shipments in 2015, up from 2% in 2011 and 13% in 2012. Shawn DuBravac, director of research for the Consumer Electronics Association, which operates CES, said in December that he expects to see somewhere between 30 and 50 new ultrabooks debut at the electronics show.

There will be tablets, too, although the ones that sell well will mostly bear the Apple logo. IDC research director for mobile connected devices Tom Mainelli expects Apple to have its best quarter ever over during the last three months of 2011 and foresees further traction for Apple products in the enterprise and education markets in 2012. At the same time, he expects Amazon's Kindle Fire to help Android devices increase their share of the media tablet market from about 33% to around 40% by the end of 2011. A new model iPad--the iPad 3 or some other name--is expected in the first half of 2012, though Apple won't be present to say anything about it at CES.

Microsoft presumably will promise a Windows 8 tablet. But we've been there before: In 2010, CEO Steve Ballmer showed off a Windows-powered HP slate, only to have HP dump Windows for Palm and webOS a few months later. There was also talk of a Windows 7 tablet at 2011 CES, but it was just talk. Now, we've come full circle. HP is once again planning a Windows tablet.

Google TV should make an appearance at 2012 CES. Google is expected to announce new hardware partners--possibly electronics maker LG and Samsung--and new chip hardware, possibly ARM-based chips, which could make Google TV less expensive than the current generation of devices that rely on Intel silicon. Motorola Mobility, which Google is in the process of acquiring, might contribute to the mix, either with its own Google TV box or as the maker of hardware components for other Google partners.