Ipad/Air – Apple segments the mobile market.

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.

17 responses to “Ipad/Air – Apple segments the mobile market.

  1. Still can’t help feeling that Apple are more style over substance.However, I agree with the death of the 10″ netbook, and can see a huge market of someone gets a decent ION or similiar powered device out. Ipads are too limited for me to spend my hard earned on….

    • i am not a mac user myself, i am personally against their DRM heavy walled-garden experience, but that is a personal choice not an indictment as it works very well for many people.

      i can see the appeal of a tablet, but not at £500 for which I will next year be able to purchase a very well specified Fusion netbook 2.0, capable of playing PC games.

  2. I think you will find tablet computers go back further than the Newton. If buy tablet you mean a computing device with the plan area roughly A4 sized and of a thickness of 2inches and under.
    Kryocea produced a machine that was badge-engineered by Olivetti, NEC, and Radio Shack. Epson had a similar device. Clive Sinclair produced a device called the Z88 too. (This year I finally bought a clean example of the latter fulfilling a teenage ambition.)

    The trouble with the form factor is holding it. Basic screen navigation is ok. But as modern OSs are still tied to text it is the typing that causes problem. The weight soon start to tell.

    It was revealing that Chief Twit Leo Laporte (and Apple fanboy supreme) revealed in recent podcast that apart from a game and one other use he was failing to find a use for his iPad. Of course being a technology journalist he has to have one of these devices for review purposes and keep concurrent.

    The new MacBook Airs look lovely. If I were buying one it would be a 13in device. As much as I love my NC10 netbook I have found screens below 13in in practice (for me at least) to be far from optimum.

    It is a shame that Apple couldn’t have come up with a unique selling point for the Air like the swivelling screen Dell came out with a few back. The trouble is that would have added a few hundred onto the price. And though I think flipping the screen is a cleaner engineering solution than the goose-neck swivel found on all other tablet-PCs.

    • yes, the link i provide above gives a pretty good history of tablets, but i chose the newton as the first mass market version that would persist in the public consciousness, i am a thirty-something tech geek and even I never new there was a Z88!😀

      tablets do have a purpose, for those who really have no need to engage in productivity computing on the move. people who are simply looking for a device to keep them up to date on news and facebook, and appreciate being able to purchase and consume media without mesing around with boot times and mouse-keyboard input measures while juggling the device on a train platform.

      i do like all mac laptops, but if i want a notebook it will always be an ultraportable one, so the 11″ is my favourite.

      • Um. No. I think the tablet is a backwards step. Cloud computing, large TVs becoming the norm, and increasingly powerful smart ‘phones make the form factor somewhat redundant. Yes for certain applications in warehousing and hospital wards yes maybe the tablet is good form factor. If I was still at uni’ a tablet would have been ideal for book hunting around the library stacks and perhaps as a reading device for PDFs of journal articles (which politics, IR, and science students are so dependent.) Though the “keyboard” on the iPad and Android are OK you wouldn’t want to write a 2500 word essay (which as we know is hardly any words at all.) Lastly I think there is some confusion between touch screen and tablet, people getting carried away with the former thinking that grantees success for the latter. Back in computing history there were devices called light pens. These fell out of use because holding your up arm is hard work after 20minutes. (There were some defence systems that used lightpens note now it is all track balls.) I don’t think people appreciate how clever the mouse actually is as human interface. I suggest you google Alan Kay…….

        Then again we live in age where people happily listen to MP3 files through earbuds.

        Oh screen size!!! No you need 13″ screen. The difference in volume and weight are negligible. Honest.

      • there are lots of people who simply are not interested in productivity computing, i know quite a few who don’t even have computers and have only got involved in tech gadgets as a result of their kindles or facebook equipped smart-phones. it isn’t me, i have three computers and no devices, (even my n900 is closer to computer than device), but these people do exist.

        my definition of portable means it must be able to fit in my north-face lumbar pack. that means netbook.🙂

  3. I missed clicked……And though I think flipping the screen is a cleaner engineering solution than the goose-neck swivel found on all other tablet-PCs I don’t think it fits with Apple clean design philosophy. Jobs doesn’t like buttons two swivels and a catch on lid would give a seizure.

  4. You know, I’m seeing a lot of opinions here about what the smallest usable net/notebook is. Jedi says the size is 11 inches; x says it’s 13 inches, and I’m perfectly productive (read: Working 8-hour days with) on a 10 inch netbook.

    I think the smallest one can go depends on the size of one’s hands and one’s typing style. I’m not a touch typist and my hands are relatively small, so 10 inches is perfect for me (yes, it did take some adjusting for me to get this small from the 14 inch laptop I had before). Jedi probably has bigger hands than me and might touch type, so can’t go smaller than 11 inches. X probably touch types and has large hands, so 13 inches is as small as he can go.

    • I agree with what you are saying, these things are not absolute, but it is not just the keyboard it is also the screen.

      The majority of 10″ netbooks are supplied with 1024×600 screens which is insufficient for a lot of windows apps designed with much bigger screens in mind.

      There are a few with 1366×768 screens but many people will not be comfortable working at such a high DPI when the windows paradigm is fundamentally designed for much higher.

  5. You’re very right that the screen size is probably more important than the keyboard size. My observations are that once the keyboard is 11 inches, people are more concerned about the screen size than the keyboard size.

    I base this on the observation that Lenovo uses the same keyboard on the ThinkPad X100e (11 inch sub-notebook) as they use on the 13, 14, and 15 inch ThinkPad EDGE computers (with a bigger and bigger bezel around the keyboard). Reviewers have been unanimous praising the keyboard on all of these computers.

    On the other hand, the 11-inch Lenovo IdeaPad U160 uses the same keyboard as their 10-inch S10-3 netbook, and the Engadget review for the U160 complained that the keyboard was good but a little cramped.

    Based on this, 11 inches and bigger gives us a big enough keyboard for most users. Most power users, however, are not happy with an 11 inch screen (there are people that use two 20 inch screens at the same time and still don’t have enough room for all of their work).

    • “Most power users, however, are not happy with an 11 inch screen”

      Oh I agree, and netbooks of any variety are not for them.

      There is a vast amount of choice in the 13″ and upwards sector, but there is a market for ultra-portable notebooks and always has been, but I believe the useful lower limit for a mainstream device capable of productivity computing is 11″, and that this divide has been reinforced by apple’s recent actions.

  6. Not a tech guy, but the “solution” here, if pos., seems simple –
    an 10/11 in. touchscreen tablet with detachable keyboard. If you could have one device with the portability of the tablet, or, if you wanted, the productivity of the notebook, you’d pay, I think, an extra $50-100 for the keyboard.

    Is that pos?

    • yeah, there are several such ideas that got announced at CES.

      both dell and lenovo have an arm tablet that acts as a screen to a x86 windows notebook.

      and a few manufactures have come out with uber tablets running android with detachable keyboards.

  7. I’m against Apples policies too, but the iPad is currently smoother to use than the Android tablets I’ve tried. A dual core ARM processor should help this with one of the latest gfx cores, but I prefer the 7″ form factor rather than 10″ of the iPad as I feel it’s more portable and closer to what I’d use. So I’m after a dual core Samsung Galaxy Tab running Honeycomb…for about £300. I do agree however that the current crop of single core Atom based netbooks are too weak for what I’d need, in fact I have a dual core Atom 330 based m-itx small pc here under my tv, and it’s already creaking and struggling it’s way through what I’d use it for. I feel it’s let down by it’s pretty weak floating point performance! So, quad core Atom maybe? Or will a fusion APU based rig be better? We’ll have to see…

    • Agreed.

      The Ipad2 is the best tablet currently available, despite my aversion to walled-gardens, i have to admit that it has no competitors.

      I likewise would be more interested in a dual-core ARM tablet with a 7″ screen, because anything bigger might as well be a laptop and thus require a bag to carry it around.

      What i think i really want is a half-way house between a smart-phone and a tablet, like a modernised Dell Streak 5″, that ultimate convergence device is always just around the corner.😉

      What might tickle your fancy is the upcoming Llano Fusion chips; basically a dual/quad core Phenom II with a 160/400 shader DX11 GPU built in, with USB3 and a 128bit DDR3 memory interface. Will be cheap, efficient and powerful. I might rebuild my current silverstone LC16 htpc case with the quad-core variant when they arrive in July.

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