This blog has long hoped that Apple would produce an 11.6” macbook, judging it to be the perfect compromise between portability and power, and now one has arrived to a largely positive response. As a tech enthusiast one can admire the streamlined and powerful design of Apple OS’s, conversely, as an open-platform geek one can reject the walled-garden Apple likes to enforce, thus leaving an abiding respect for the excellence of their hardware design. Where Apple treads consumer demand often follows, and in this instance the ill-defined mobile-tech market is about to coalesce, the results of which will be seen in the second half of 2011.
The tablet/netbook crossover is about to have a much sharper edge.
In April 2010 Apple released the Ipad, a tablet device boasting an operating system fully designed for a touch-screen interface, a 10” multi-touch screen to sophisticate the user interface, an all day battery life, and a CPU/GPU capable of displaying the vast amount of media, applications and games available through the app-store.
Where this story gets interesting however is the October 2010 release of the new Macbook Air, a mobile computer boasting an 11.6” screen with a screen resolution of 1366×768, a CPU and GPU capable of genuine computing tasks, flash storage permitting an instant-on operation, and all of which contained within a netbook sized chassis.
Up until this point a netbook with an early Intel Atom CPU was incapable of meeting the demands of much that would be typically described as productivity computing; video-editing was out of bounds, as was any other CPU intensive program, and multi-tasking a no-no. Likewise, a netbook with an Intel GMA integrated GPU was incapable of providing performance sufficient even to run older AAA PC games from years previous. Finally, a netbook with a 10” screen sporting a resolution of 1024×600 is a ‘challenging’ environment within which to manage a spreadsheet, and many applications and games cannot physically display within such a limited amount of screen real-estate. In short, they were ultra-portable at the expense of their primary task; productivity computing, and thus nothing more than badly designed PIM/PMP devices with a keyboard.
Arguably the tablet has had an even longer and more tortured evolution beginning with the Apple Newton at a time when engineering was simply incapable of producing hardware that could be packaged into a pocketable device, with any useful performance, or any useful battery life. This situation was not improved any a decade later when Windows PC Tablet Edition arrived, for trying to run x86 PC hardware in a ‘slim’ 12” format was unworkable, as was trying to operate the Windows user interface without the mouse and keyboard it fundamentally depended upon. How was a vibrant tablet ecosystem ever to evolve without a dedicated touch-screen OS and a mechanism to distribute applications for it? In short, they were not portable enough to justify their lack of ability for productivity computing, and thus nothing more than an oversized PIM/PMP device.
So what has Apple got to do with the emergence of a hard divide between netbooks & tablets?
Have not the likes of Acer and Lenovo been selling 11.6” netbooks for less than £500 and using AMD dual-core CPU’s and DX10 integrated graphics since the beginning of 2010?
Was it not inevitable that adventurous companies like Archos & Viliv would make sophisticated tablet devices using Android, and had been working towards this end for years?
The difference is that these companies are not trend-setters as Apple is, they cannot shape consumer expectations, and thus they cannot mould consumer demand on an industry wide scale.
Most important of all is not the effect of either product within its own market, but how each product limits the encroachment of the others market, segmenting the broader mobile-tech market, and by operating at the juncture of smart-devices and productivity-computing they have in fact extended the market for their existing areas of expertise; notebooks and smartphones.
For how much longer will it be an attractive proposition to market a 10” atom netbook, incapable of productivity computing, when you can have a sleek and portable tablet computer?
For how much longer will it be considered sensible to market 12” tablets, incapable of productivity computing, when you can have a sleek and portable notebook computer?
Up until now both the netbook and the tablet market have been a riot of divergent concepts, but the combination of Apple’s mind-share and engineering excellence will push tablets up into the 10” space while at the same time ensuring that they do not move beyond this to threaten its lucrative notebook sales.
It has already been noted by IDC and Gartner that tablets are eating into netbook sales, but this does not herald the end of netbooks, merely the end of 10” Atom netbooks as environmental stress creates a space into which powerful 11.6” netbooks will grow. The decline of Neanderthal man and the rise of the Homo sapiens makes a surprisingly apt analogy for this situation.
On the netbook front this Apple accelerated trend to genuine productivity computing in the netbook space will be assisted by the widespread adoption of digital distribution and the arrival of AMD’s Fusion CPU/GPU hybrid.
On the tablet front this Apple accelerated trend to ubiquitous tablet computing will be assisted by the arrival of Android 3.0 and as well as Meego, W7M & Blackberry products, as well as powerful multi-core ARM SoC’s.
For the mobile tech enthusiast 2011 is going to be a lot less interesting as Apple’s market segmentation crowds out the wilder ideas in the five to twelve inch market, but the result will arguably be a lot more useful as viable development ecosystems coalesce around more structured and effective tablet & netbook markets.
There will of course be edge-cases, and thus products designed to meet them, but 10″ netbooks and 12″ windows tablets will in future become niche products.