Ultrabook, Padfone and iCloud: Impact on the PC Market?

Personal computing has seen some dramatic shifts in recent years, thanks in large part to the impact of social networking and its integration with entertainment media; the increased capability of smartphones and other portable devices; new high-speed networks and faster, smaller chips; the introduction of tablets and apps — and, of course, the success behind what many are currently labeling “The iPad Effect.”

Consumers have responded with increased demands and expectations regarding the convenience in which they are able to access their information, entertainment and various forms of electronic communication. As CE manufacturers scramble toward meeting these expectations, we are starting to see some interesting new form factors and delivery systems, as well as a potential impact on our more traditional electronic devices.

One of the ways this is playing out is in regards to the design, features, functionality (and competition) of tablets, laptops, netbooks, and PCs. And the prospect of additional changes resulting from cloud computing may accelerate the competition between devices. As we look forward, it should be worth keeping our eyes on the following trends and new products:

The Ultrabook

Intel is promoting a new category of laptops called the “Ultrabook” — a sort of hybrid laptop that incorporates the best features of tablets. The new designs (less than 0.8-inch thick) will be made possible by the latest 2nd-generation Intel Core processors. ASUS is one manufacturer behind the Ultrabook design and hopes to give Apple’s $999 MacBook Air a run for its money with the Ultrabook UX21 (featuring Intel’s i7 CPU and the new SanDisk U100 SSD). Intel predicts Ultrabooks could claim as much as 40 percent of the laptop market by 2012.

According to The Wall Street Journal: “A key goal is to deliver much thinner and lighter laptops, with mainstream price points and tablet-style features such as touchscreens and the ability to switch on quickly to let users call up websites without waiting.”

“They’ll cost under $1000, be extremely thin and portable, start up in seconds, be produced by a number of manufacturers and go on sale before Christmas,” adds Digital Trends in a similar write-up. “The emphasis on the portability and responsiveness of Ultrabooks shows that the world’s biggest chip maker is hoping to make consumers think twice about purchasing mobile devices such as the hugely popular iPad tablet.”

The Padfone

At Computex last week in Taipei, ASUS unveiled another new form factor, the “Padfone” — which Digital Trends describes as “a smartphone with a battery-equipped display dock that turns the device into a tablet.” The “pad” component does not function independently, but essentially serves as a tablet-shaped display with a dock, basically enhancing the phone’s functionality. In addition to a 10.1-inch screen to play with, the Padfone offers extended battery life, speakers, a keyboard, an I/O extender that will allow other devices to communicate with the phone, and functionality for the phone’s camera to keep working while docked. ASUS hinted at additional features that will be announced closer to the product’s planned Christmas release.

Will the Padfone, Ultrabook (or a similar new design) compete with current slate of tablets, laptops and desktop PCs? If the trends continue to push toward convenience, portability, speed, power, Web surfing and cloud services — the answer may be yes. At the very least, they may be the answer to netbooks. WSJ reports in response to the rise of thinner, more powerful devices: “The activity reflects both technology advances and growing pressure on personal-computer makers, particularly the rise of the iPad and other tablets. Goldman Sachs estimates that nearly 18 million of the touchscreen devices were sold in 2010, a figure it expects to swell to 60 million in 2011.”

iPad Tablet Competition

A number of manufacturers currently have tablet PCs on the market, but so far none of the devices (including the Samsung Galaxy Tab, Motorola Xoom or BlackBerry PlayBook) have been able to significantly compete with the growing success of the iPad, its many accessories and more than 65,000 apps. However, emerging tablets may impact the market by undercutting the price of the iPad. And with new, more powerful tablet chips from the likes of Intel, ARM and AMD, we may start to see some significant breakthroughs.

Taiwanese manufacturer Acer, for example, recently debuted its Iconia Tab A500 that runs Google’s Android OS. A $449 Wi-Fi version went on sale in April and a new model that works on AT&T’s 4G wireless network is scheduled for a summer release. “While it doesn’t beat either iPad overall, the Iconia Tab offers a decent alternative to Apple, especially for multimedia enthusiasts who want to display their content on a TV, PC or smartphone without additional gear,” reports WSJ.

If a new wave of price-conscious tablets can address the needs of consumers — particularly in regards to subscription- and cloud-based access to media content, video chats via services such as Skype or ooVoo, free and affordable new apps, and even potential glasses-free 3D displays (see the Eee Pad MeMO video demo from Engadget) — then the iPad (and other tablets) may start to feel the heat.

We may also see additional impact on the desktop PC market. It has been reported that PC manufacturers remain optimistic, viewing the recent dip in growth as a temporary bump in the road. However, in a report issued by Gartner this week, PC sales are not expected to grow as much in 2011 as earlier expected. The Gartner analysts blame the collapse of netbooks following the iPad’s release and added that, “regardless of the direct impact of the iPad and its kind, PCs no longer had the safety net they once did. They now had to compete against tablets, phones, set-top boxes and other devices as even the computers themselves were getting more specialized.”

Cloud Computing

A number of companies are gearing up for a new era of automated backup, synchronization, data storage and variety of cloud-based media services. There are those who believe this may be the final nail in the coffin for the desktop PC.

In a recent blog post commenting on Apple’s unveiling of OS X 10.7, iOS 5 and iCloud service — Robert X. Cringely addressed the possibility that Apple CEO Steve Jobs may be taking aim at killing Microsoft. Cringely writes, “Jobs is going to sacrifice the Macintosh in order to kill Windows. He isn’t beating Windows, he’s making Windows inconsequential.”

“We’re going to demote the PC and the Mac to just be a device — just like an iPad, an iPhone or an iPod Touch. We’re going to move the hub of your digital life to the cloud,” explained Jobs at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference earlier this week.

Cringely contends that this is the bold kind of thinking that Microsoft lacks. With Apple leading the charge, he suggests Google may soon take the same approach, “…adding automated backup, synchronization and migration to Android and Chrome.” We may see increased competition between Apple and Google if Cringely is correct in his assertion regarding the company that gets our data in the cloud, gets us as captive customers forever. “Both companies will be grabbing for data, claiming territory, and leaving Microsoft alone to defend a desktop that will soon cease to exist,” he suggests.

Time will tell what impact these changes will have on the desktop PC, but if Cringely is right, it won’t be much time… “This transition will take at most two hardware generations and we’re talking mobile generations, which means three years, total.”

What else?

Are there additional “bigger picture” themes we should be watching for in this sector? Let us know your thoughts…

 

Related Electronista article: “Apple more profitable than Microsoft as netbooks plunge 40%” (4/28/11)

Related Electronista post: “Gartner: PC growth slowing to 9.3% through iPad effect” (6/8/11)

Related Forbes article: “Microsoft Gets Reprieve As Tablets Aren’t Killing PC Sales (Yet)” (6/1/11)

Related Wall Street Journal article: “PCs See Tablets’ Silver Lining” (6/1/11)

Related Network World article: “AMD finally enters tablet market with new chip” (6/1/11)

Related Wall Street Journal article: “PC Makers Push Into ‘Ultrabooks'” (5/30/11)

Related Digital Trends article: “PadFone officially revealed, ASUS hints at Ice Cream Sandwich and second-gen tablets” (5/31/11)

Related Engadget post (includes videos): “ASUS announces the Padfone (update: eyes-on!)” (5/30/11)

Related Wall Street Journal article: “Samsung Leans on Android” (5/31/11)

Related Reuters article: “Intel unveils laptops that include tablet features” (5/31/11)

Related Wall Street Journal article: “A New Tablet From Acer Challenges iPad on Price” (5/26/11)

Related Gizmag post: “ASUS announces glasses-free Eee Pad MeMO 3D tablet” (6/2/11)

Related O’Reilly Radar article: “The iPad’s ripple effect” (1/31/11)

Apple Close to Launching Cloud-Based Music Service

Earlier this month, ETCentric reported that Apple has been planning a cloud-based music locker service that will enable its customers to stream music to smartphones, tablets or computers. As progress continues regarding deals with the major music labels, the new service may launch sooner than originally reported — with rumors speculating possibly as soon as June 6 in San Francisco at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC 2011).

The Apple proposal is different from Amazon’s recent Cloud Drive rollout and Google’s Music locker service (the beta for which was announced at Google I/O). As reported, Apple is seeking paid licenses from the labels for its service (Amazon and Google launched their services without gaining such approval). Bloomberg reports that Apple has reached agreements with three of the major labels (Sony, EMI and Warner) — with Universal Music Group close to a deal.

By jumping the gun, Amazon and Google may have helped Apple position itself to take the lead in this arena. As TechCrunch reports: “So the labels, which for the better part of a decade now have been looking for someone, anyone to help counter Apple’s power in their business, is turning right back to Apple when they need help. And Apple will obviously gladly welcome them with open arms. After all, with these licenses, Apple will have secured the cloud music high ground despite being the last to launch. Think about it. With these agreements, Apple is likely going to be able to do the one thing that is absolutely crucial for cloud music to take off: offer library syncing without uploading.”

Plus, Apple has the benefit of an existing consumer base, with 200 million people who already have iTunes accounts. There has also been speculation that the cloud music service may be integrated with a revamped version of MobileMe, Apple’s subscription-based collection of online services and storage.

CNET raises two interesting points:

1. There’s no doubt who the top-four record companies are pulling for in the cloud music wars. They hope Apple’s service makes the other two guys look shabby by comparison. The thinking is that if Apple’s service eclipses those of its rivals, it will prompt Amazon and Google to pay the labels’ licensing rates.

2. What nobody has proven yet is whether consumers even want the cloud. CNET has reported that Apple is likely to charge a subscription fee eventually for its cloud service. Subscription music services, such as Rhapsody, have a spotty record at attracting audiences.

Related TechCrunch article: “Google And Amazon May Have Just Handed Apple The Keys To The Cloud Music Kingdom” (5/18/11)

Related Wall Street Journal article: “For a Song, Online Giants Offer Music in a Cloud” (5/19/11)

Related Patently Apple article: “Whoa! Apple Patent Confirms iTunes Cloud Media Services” (5/19/11)

Related CNET article: “Exclusive: Apple near cloud-music deals” (5/18/11)

Related TechCrunch article: “Without The Labels, Google’s Music Locker Service Will Look Like Apple’s Ugly Sibling. Again.” (5/9/11)

Apple Plans Cloud-Based Music Service

Apple is planning a cloud-based music locker service that will enable its customers to stream music to multiple devices. The Wall Street Journal reports that what makes the Apple proposal different from Amazon’s recent Cloud Drive rollout is that Apple is seeking paid licenses from the labels for its service (Amazon started its service without gaining such approval).

Although the Apple version has yet to go public, insiders report that it will work differently than the Amazon Cloud Drive and Player, which acts much like an external hard drive. Through deals with the labels, the Apple service will allow for a single master copy of a song to be stored on its servers, that can then be shared with multiple users (the Amazon service requires users to upload each song they want to access remotely).

“The idea is that Apple will let users store songs they’ve purchased from its iTunes store, as well as others songs stored on their hard drives, and listen to them on multiple devices,” reports WSJ.

Recent rumors suggest Apple will charge users an annual subscription fee, possibly in the area of $20.

Related Wall Street Journal article: “Amazon’s Cloud Music Move Isn’t Earth-Shaking” (3/29/11)

Related Wall Street Journal article: “Amazon’s Cloud Service Is A) Legal B) Illegal? C) Probably Here To Stay” (3/29/11)

Related Los Angeles Times article: “Price war! Amazon launches 69-cent MP3 store for top-selling tunes” (4/28/11)

Related TechCrunch article: “Behind the Scenes: Record Label Demands from Amazon” (4/29/11)

Related CNET article: “Expect Apple to charge for music cloud” (4/26/11)

Former Apple Engineers Set Out to Reinvent the E-Book

Former Apple engineers Kimon Tsinteris and Mike Matas have created a digital creation tool that might have a dramatic impact on the “frictionless” self-publishing of electronic books. Book apps created with the platform will leverage the sensors, touchscreen gestures, microphone and graphics chip of the iPad and iPhone to create a more interactive experience for electronic reading. The duo’s Push Pop Press is getting an interesting start, with some help from former vice president Al Gore.

According to the Wired Gadget Lab: “Push Pop Press will be a publishing platform for authors, publishers and artists to turn their books into interactive iPad or iPhone apps — no programming skills required.” The app enables users to augment their stories with photos, videos and a compelling variety of interactive features, which could go beyond books to the publishing of magazines and newspapers.

Push Pop Press could become an affordable alternative to the tools featured in Adobe’s Creative Suite, commonly used for creating today’s tablet periodicals. For example, Tsinteris and Matas claim that interactive diagrams, geotagged photos and video content can easily be embedded in a book produced with the tool.

For those who may be interested in seeing the possibilities of Push Pop Press, the app version of Al Gore’s book, Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis, is available for $4.99 via the iTunes store.

You can also check out Gore’s guided tour of the app on the Wired post or the Push Pop Press site. It’s worth the two minutes to see this in action.

Apple Announces iPhone Update to Address Location Data Concern

Most of our readers have probably been following the recent news regarding consumer fears that iPhones and other smartphones are tracking users’ location information. It was recently discovered that phones operating on iOS and Google’s Android platform transmit the devices’ locations back to the respective companies.

Apple has defended the need for location data to provide optimum service and provided clarification by explaining an individual cannot be located using the data. The Wall Street Journal reports that Apple defends its process, but nonetheless announced a planned software update that will reduce the size of the database cached on the phone and hopefully alleviate user concern.

According to WSJ: “Apple said it maintains a database of Wi-Fi hot spots and cell towers around users’ locations, a process that helps the phone calculate its location. The information is used to quickly find global-positioning-system satellites, a process that otherwise could take several minutes, the company said.”

Related CNNMoney article: “LocationGate was a ‘bug,’ says Apple” (4/27/11)

Related Wall Street Journal article: “Q&A: Jobs and Apple Execs on Tracking Down the Facts About iPhones and Location” (4/27/11)

Related Macworld article: “How the iPhone knows where you are” (4/28/11)

Will Apple become the Digital Gatekeeper for Print Media?

San Jose Mercury News offers an interesting look at the pros and cons regarding Apple’s recent push into digital publishing. The company’s new subscription model could potentially make it the “online gatekeeper” as the digital newsstand for newspaper and magazine content (similar to its current dominance in digital music), but the model has met with some resistance from the industry and mixed reviews from analysts.

On the upside, Apple’s model offers publishers instant exposure to the many Apps Store subscribers and makes subscribing a simple, proven process. Recognizing this, some publishers are already on board. The iPad-only digital newspaper The Daily from News Corp., for example, launched around the same time Apple announced its digital publishing plan — while some newspapers, including the Mercury News and the New York Times, are currently test-running the subscription model.

The proposal is a bold move by Apple, which takes a 30 percent cut for each newspaper or magazine subscriber via iTunes. And what may draw the most controversy, the model also restricts publishers from offering lower prices than what they charge through iPhone and iPad apps.

The article raises some possible negative implications, including:

1. There are concerns from European antitrust authorities, which could eventually place a target on Apple.

2. By “playing hardball” with publishers, Apple may run the risk of driving its customers to other tablet-makers.

3. Publishers may fear that Apple is putting itself between them and their new customers.

Apple may Offer Streaming Video to Devices via AirPlay

Apple is considering adding streaming video to its AirPlay service, which currently allows users to stream audio from an iPhone, iPad or iTunes to a home stereo or other devices. According to Bloomberg, two people familiar with the matter (who asked to remain anonymous) suggested the new feature would enable streaming video from an iPhone or iPad to television sets — and that Apple would license its software to CE manufacturers who could potentially use AirPlay in their devices for streaming movies, television and other video content.

Expanding AirPlay functionality could possibly spark more use of Apple devices and services in the home, despite the company’s limited success selling the $99 Apple TV set-top box thus far. Bloomberg reports that, “For Apple, AirPlay is a way to expand into the living room without having to introduce new products.”

While Apple and others such as Google are looking to explore the possibilities of streaming video and Web-connected televisions, a challenge for streaming content from a mobile device involves bandwidth issues and whether signals can be carried without interruption. Regardless of any technical obstacles, there is clearly a shift in how consumers are accessing TV shows and movies, with an increasing number of people accessing instant streaming services from the likes of Netflix and Hulu. Apple’s Steve Jobs — banking on a complete shift from physical media toward content distribution in digital form — has gone so far as barring Blu-ray players from Mac computers.

Apple TV Offers Live MLB and NBA Games

Baseball and basketball fans can now turn to the second-generation Apple TV for live and on-demand archived games streaming in HD.  The subscription service will cost $100/year for MLB.tv (spring training and regular season games and access to archived games).  A $120 premium version provides access to both home and away games.  Basketball games are accessible via the NBA League Pass Broadband service. The NBA service offers two options: a $65 version lets users follow up to seven teams throughout the regular season, while a $99 option provides games from all 30 teams.

Both services have blackouts based on the subscription’s registration address.

Access to the new services is enabled by the iOS for Apple TV 4.2 update, and will work similarly to Netflix. Users sign in via an account and password, and then access whatever content the subscription permits. Roku has offered similar MLB.tv access for some time and recently added NHL and UFC options. This could be what sports fans need to ditch traditional cable services.

In a related Wall Street Journal “All Things Digital” article (3/14/11), ESPN reports that only a tiny fraction of sports fans have cut the cable cord, a number that may be moot considering the equal number of fans who added cable and broadband access during the same period.

 

Apple Negotiating Unlimited Music Downloads

Apple is in talks with record companies to provide iTunes users with more flexible access to purchased music on multiple devices. Apple and the record labels are eager to strike a deal that will maintain demand for digital downloading in the midst of popular streaming services such as Pandora.

According to anonymous sources reportedly sitting in on the discussions, a deal would provide iTunes users with a permanent back-up of purchases and allow downloads to iPad, iPod, and iPhone devices from the same iTunes account (moving a step closer to access to Internet-stored content).

In addition to addressing stalled digital download sales, Apple is also weighing options for its MobileMe service for storing images, video, and other media online. Apple’s new $1 billion data center in North Carolina is expected to serve as a hub for iTunes and MobileMe services.

New Final Cut Pro Expected for Spring 2011

More than a year has passed since Final Cut Pro’s last release, but the word is out that Apple has plans for a Spring announcement. Apple recently invited a small group of professional video editors to the Cupertino campus for a test run.

According to TechCrunch, early reports from those who demonstrated the new version suggest that the changes are “dramatic and ambitious” and may address concerns that Apple has turned its focus regarding video editing from the professional to the consumer space.

The new version of Final Cut Pro is said to be a “major overhaul” reports 9to5Mac, including a new user interface, 64-bit compatibility, and architectural enhancements.

TechCrunch reports Apple has plans to release the new version of FCP in Spring 2011, in a launch possibly coinciding with April’s NAB conference.

 

Walt Mossberg on the New Apple iPad 2

In this video interview from San Francisco, Wall Street Journal “Personal Technology” columnist Walt Mossberg provides his first impressions of the new thinner and lighter Apple iPad 2, premiered by Steve Jobs at an invitation-only event on March 2.

New features worth noting include front and rear-view cameras, a thinner form factor than the iPhone, faster graphics, and dual core processors. It seems that Apple addressed the shortcomings recently targeted in advertising by its competitors. Mossberg comments that Apple did enough to stay ahead, but suggests they’re not going to claim 90 percent of the market share like they did last year due to the sheer volume of competing tablets this time around.

Mossberg comments on Apple’s focus on content creation, as opposed to content consumption, which the company hopes will change the way some consumers see the device. He also suggests it is a big deal that Apple has been able to maintain its $499 price tag for the new version. (The Wi-Fi versions start at $499 for a 16GB model and $699 for a 64GB configuration, while the 3G iPads are priced from $629 to $829.)

Portable, Glasses-Free 3D from Nintendo

The Nintendo 3DS has launched in Japan with plans to hit the U.S. and European markets next month. The portable device is the first of its kind to offer glasses-free 3D gaming.

Despite the sellout of pre-order stocks, gaming enthusiasts showed up in droves for the Japanese release.  However, it remains to be seen how the 3DS will compete worldwide with the new casual gaming capabilities of tablet PCs, the Apple iPhone, Android-powered smartphones, and the next generation portable from Sony (expected to launch in 10 months).

According to Reuters, Nintendo will initially run with the formula that has traditionally worked with its DS: “a dedicated portable games device with software available on cartridges that cost $30 or more.”

Free VUWER App Tracks Stolen Macs

VUWER (Vanderbilt University Web Enabled Recovery) is a free, open source, Mac OS X background app that assists in the tracking of stolen Macs. The app checks a web or remote computer account at regular intervals, in the background without disrupting use. If a computer is stolen, the owner can change the message that VUWER reads in order to track vital information.

VUWER can collect screen capture images of what the thief is viewing. It can also activate the iSight camera to capture images of who is in front of the Mac and capture geolocated IP address information. This information is forwarded to the owner silently, in the background, without the thief catching on.

Additionally, VUWER is written in Applescript, so it is simple to modify.

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