Coming off an extended tech meeting hangover from International CES 2013, I'm not sure if there are going to be many significant differences between a Windows 8 tablet and a Windows 8 Ultrabook. It wouldn't surprise me if business tablets and ultrabooks merged into a single product category within three years, with a more nuanced confusion/merger of designs and styles in the "consumer" category.
Let's start with medium to high-end Windows 8 Ultrabooks and laptops. Manufacturers are putting touch screen on everything as a first step, with the next step a tweak of how to make the touch screen segment and the keyboard segment twist/fold/spin so you can use the Ultrabook touch screen as a tablet.
Step three is to make the touch screen and keyboard separate, so you can take the Ultrabook screen and use it as a tablet for when you don't want a keyboard. If you need more battery power or to do more than push your fingers around (smudging up the screen), snap back on the keyboard, give the screen a quick rub with a microfiber cloth and you're back to a more "traditional" laptop experience.
Lenovo appears to have taken the most risk in Ultrabook/tablet hybrid/convertible designs, as illustrated by its Yoga twist-flip Ultrabook and Helix "Rip and Flip" screen/tablet/keyboard combo. Intel has shown off a "North Cape" reference laptop that Engadget describes as a "13 inch 1080p tablet with a keyboard dock." Lenovo's Helix with its 11.6 inch screen and 10 hours of battery life will price out at a whopping $1,499 when it arrives in February, while North Cape-based designs are expected to appear this fall.
Ultrabooks remain expensive and tablet touch screens aren't going to do any favors for pricing. I'm also not big on small screens as my eyes get older, so I'm going to be looking for a (still more expensive) 14 or 15-inch screen at a price that won't make my teeth grind. North Cape designs and increased competition between PC manufacturers should push pricing downward, but I suspect we won't see really good bargains for a couple of years.
The so-called "consumer" world will have a lot more chaos in it. Apple has its iPad family, Microsoft's Surface RT is trying to edge in at an affordable price point below a full-blown Windows 8 tablet/ultrabook, and there are dozens of Android tablets and a few Chromebooks thrown in. I know people are “happy-happy/joy-joy” when it comes to Android for lower cost and incorporation into ARM-based designs, but Google has to get its head straight when it comes to Android vs. Chromebooks. Dump Chromebooks and streamline on Android across all platforms, since there is (well, should be) no difference between an Android tablet and an Android tablet with a keyboard that happens to look and be priced like a netbook.
Apple's dilemma is it has been caught short in the tablet/ultrabook merger. It wants users to buy an iPad and a MacBook Air, because that's the way Steven Jobs wanted it, but over time people are going to gravitate to a single multi-function device because of wallet and simplicity considerations. I don't expect a big loss of sales for Apple PC-esque products, since they've been in the fashionable minority for a while. Longer term, iPad sales may see some erosion as consumer-oriented Windows 8 tablet/ultrabooks gain traction.
Edited by Jamie Epstein