How the New MacBook Air, Slate Define Apple and HP

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This might seem like a weird comparison and perhaps it is, but if you think about Apple's new MacBook Air and HP's Slate, these high-profile products say a lot about how Apple and HP approach their markets. Both likely will make it into business, the first likely over the objections of IT organizations that haven't yet blessed the Mac, and the second in planned adoption in markets like real estate and health care. One product will likely sell very well, the other not so much and both are overshadowed by the iPad.


The Market


The hot products in the market at the moment aren't PCs, they are mobile devices. Amazon is selling a ton of Kindles, Apple a massive number of iPads, and the latest iPhone and Android devices are competing aggressively for mindshare. In fact, if the charts here are to be believed and trends hold, the market share for Apple's new iOS devices (iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch) will pass that of PCs in about two years. Touchscreens are in, tablets are in and clamshell designs and traditional computers are out. Yet Apple's big release was a clamshell notebook and HP's was a tablet, so you'd expect this to be reversed.


Touchscreens simply don't work well on notebook computers and have only been used on all-in-one desktops. Even there it hasn't really taken off because people are used to a mouse or track pad. A touchscreen can cause a laptop to tip back; balancing that weight and pressure has been a problem.


Tablets have been successful so far only in certain vertical markets and a company most of us don't remember as a PC maker dominates there: Fujitsu. This is because we really don't care to type on screen keyboards or use a stylus to input information on anything but forms. So these products typically reside in insurance and health care markets where forms drive the business.


However, some people now work with iPads (nice piece comparing the new Air to an iPad ) as if they were laptops and some use a wireless keyboard. In addition, Apple has indicated that it plans to move its PC line toward something more like the iOS going forward. So HP had a unique opportunity to bring out something that was ahead of where Apple was going. Given Apple has sold around 8 million iPads, that might be an interesting place to be.


HP Tablet: No iPad, But a Better Fujitsu Slate


The HP 500 Tablet is a low-volume product sold only through HP's direct site. For a company tied to a tablet structure and Windows applications, this could be an interesting product. Expected to cost around $800, have five hours of battery life and to weigh about half that of a current Windows tablet, for the target market, HP's tablet could be an interesting alternative to products from Motion Computing or Fujitsu. According to this New York Times review, it is slightly more expensive and more capable than the iPad, but with far less battery life, heavier and less exciting. In short, it's ideal for someone who wants some of the iPad's advantages, but still needs to live in Windows.


But HP could have built something with its TouchSmart interface, a GPU (the same one Apple uses in the MacBook Air) and positioned it where Apple is going and it might have had a broader market appeal. HP even has a color outdoor display technology that could have caused this product to really stand out. But "might have" and "did" are two different things.


11-inch MacBook Air: Most Expensive Netbook on the Planet


The new Apple MacBook Air products have 1.4GHz (yes, it is a Core 2 but a really slow one) processors and an 11-inch screen, which puts it in the top netbook class of computers. But netbooks have moved up in performance, so they can now be used for anything a notebook can. Much like netbooks with Nvidia Ion processors, these have similar graphics, which give them the ability to do rich media and still remain razor thin and attractive. My friend Michael Gartenberg, a longtime notebook and mobile phone analyst, tweeted that this product might be his perfect notebook, and I think many others would agree. While I still like my own Alienware M11X better, primarily because I have this thing about performance, I have to admit to a little MacBook lust myself when I see this box. So even though it is likely the most expensive netbook on the planet, I doubt anyone will care because it might be the best for many of them as well. Apparently the new models have already sold out at most stores.


In the end, Apple will likely sell a ton of the 11-inch MacBook Airs, and HP will set low expectations for its slate. I think HP could have done better, but it would have been harder and far more risky.


Wrapping Up: Apple vs. HP


In many ways, the difference between these two products showcases the differences between HP and Apple. Apple is all about flash, presentation and perception and uses that to drive high-volume, high-margin products to market. Its market valuation is the envy of the segment. HP is much more staid, less willing to take risks and brings out workhorse products that compete on price and core functionality. HP also has a passive-aggressive thing going with Microsoft (which came close to destroying the Windows 7 launch) that makes it difficult to create a stand-out product with Windows.


However, HP is also one of the most powerful companies in the segment, but far from the most exciting. This is likely one of the things Leo Apotheker will need to address if he is to be successful, and what Carly Fiorina largely worked unsuccessfully to do as well. He needs to change the excitement that surrounds the company from drama in the boardroom to exciting products. If he doesn't, the boardroom drama will likely recur.