There is a lot of interesting stuff coming out of Computex in Taiwan that suggest that the iPad has lit a fire under the major PC players and they are scrambling to bring to market a response. Windows 8 tablets, for instance, are being held to tightly specified configurations, much like Windows 7 phones were, to lower dramatically the related complexity of the ecosystem and better assure the quality of the result.
Intel is rethinking the laptop and announced the Ultrabook, a laptop concept due out shortly, that blends the battery life and size of the iPad with the capabilities of a laptop in an attempt to create the best of both worlds.
Let's talk about both strategies today.
Windows 8: Containing Complexity
Apple maintains a higher customer satisfaction and lower perceived breakage (at least from software) of any of the PC makers. The company got there largely by limiting severely the number of choices and you can often see its problems spike when it brings out a new version of the Mac OS and folks try to apply it to older hardware.
Windows clearly enjoys more choices across all components, but those choices result in unique configurations that are never presented during the OS's creation and it is often problems with conflicting or bad drivers that seem to cause most of the ongoing reliability problems.
Now this is apparently frustrating the OEMs that want to more effectively bid suppliers against each other to get price advantages, but that is a tactical concern that trades off infighting in the PC space against coming up with a credible defense against Apple.
In a way, we are seeing a defense of the model that made Microsoft possible, and clearly with the impressive growth of the iPad and moves by HP and Motorola to develop their own platforms, that model is at risk. Microsoft has finally recognized that its future is at risk and is making the difficult decisions necessary to assure it.
The end result should be Windows 8 PCs and tablets, which are far more reliable and provide a more consistent experience than past Windows PCs. However, this will mean more difficulty for the OEMs that are trying to differentiate from each other, and with historically limited marketing budgets, these OEMs will need to adjust their marketing strategies or the market could flow to the lowest-cost provider.
So direct impact of this strategy should be both a more reliable PC product, particularly in tablet and laptop form factors, and lower prices as winning component makers benefit from higher manufacturing volumes and use that cost savings to set prices that prevent them from being displaced. Lighter, more reliable, cheaper - it's hard to argue with that.
One of the vendors at risk under this strategy is Intel, which is the dominant PC maker but has found current-generation tablets and smartphones difficult to penetrate. Rather than taking a hard run at creating an iPad-like product, it has reset on the notebook form factor that it has been so successful with and redesigned it into a lighter, slimmer, more iPad-like offering but with the key notebook features of a keyboard and track pad. This is inherently a better strategy because it leverages an Intel strength rather than trying to engage with Apple in a market that Apple clearly dominates.
As with most "best of all worlds" products, this one will likely have some teething issues initially, but it should evolve much like Centrino did, which eventually became one of Intel's most successful mobile offerings. Expect the mature product to have an operating weight in the 3-pound range with a battery life in the 10-hour range, and similar external measurements to the MacBook Air or iPad (depending on screen size), while pricing out in range of existing laptops or in the $500 to $1,000 range.
Wrapping Up: Power Is in the Combination
Now both Windows 8 and the Ultrabook are separate efforts but they will slam together in 2012 on the same platform. This will result in the combined benefits of both products, which could (if Intel and Microsoft stop pissing in each other's soup) revitalize the PC market and provide us with another wave of products that could both save our backs and make that annoying power supply brick far less annoying.
It took a while, but both Intel and Microsoft are stepping up to the plate now. However, 2012 is a long time away in a market that moves on quarters. We'll know in a couple of years whether they were in time.