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Outlook Upbeat For Holiday Mobile Computing Sales

NEW YORK – The days when kids clamored for a desktop or laptop for Christmas are long gone, but analysts and vendors are optimistic that the category will enjoy a decent 2013 holiday season.

That does not mean tablets are in any danger of being supplanted as the No. 1 tech gift on most consumer’s wish list, but the influx of new form factors and price points will give the mobile computing category a boost.

To say non-tablet computing devices face an uphill fight is an understatement. The research firm IDC expects tablet shipments to surpass the combined total of laptops and desktops for the fourth quarter of 2013. PCs will retain their leadership position for the full year and 2014, but tablets will surpass PCs on an annual basis by 2015.

The potential bright spots for this year will be hybrids/tablets and, to a lesser extent, midpriced mainstream laptops, said Crag Stice, IHS senior principal analyst, electronics and media compute platforms.

“There is a lot of energy towards the hybrid tablet. It is a full PC with an x86 processor running Windows 8.1,” Stice said.

In addition to offering the consumer a true computer experience, Stice said the most important point is price, adding he believes aggressive pricing on hybrids will allow them to compete with tablets because they do address the customer’s desire for owning a tablet along with delivering a full PC experience.

“These have been fairly high-priced, but we are seeing them come down,” he said, adding that using an Intel Atom processor allows the price point to be pushed down to the $400 level. Stephen Baker, industry analysis VP for The NPD Group, sees hybrids and Ultrabooks as having a small impact on overall holiday sales. He is expecting Ultrabooks sales to grow, but remain a small segment of the overall mobile computing market. In much the same manner hybrids will also see a strong holiday, but sales will remain limited.

Baker cited the slow start the hybrid category has had due to the inability of the industry to deliver a design that is both competitive with tablets and yet differentiated from PCs.

“We will see more hybrid/convertible type products this holiday, but we believe the market is still some time away from delivering a truly dual use device,” he said.

Steve Koenig, the Consumer Electronics Association’s (CEA) industry analysis director, sees hybrids as a tool to generate consumer interest.

“As the latest innovation in mobile computing, hybrid or convertible PCs can help generate floor traffic as holiday shoppers will likely be keen on experiencing the technology before they buy,” he said.

Duc Dang, Toshiba’s product development senior product manager, digital products division, said hybrids like Toshiba’s Click, priced at $599 and sold exclusively through Best Buy, will allow customers interested in an affordable mainstream laptop to consider purchasing a hybrid instead.

However, despite this development Dang thinks traditional, midpriced laptops will be the big seller for the computer category this year.

“Mainstream laptop prices are still too good,” he noted.

Baker said he has no doubt traditional clamshell laptops will perform well.

“Clamshell sales will be very strong this holiday. They will be the vast majority of the PC market this holiday,” he said.

Koenig also foresees traditional notebooks having their usual impact on holiday sales.

“Notebooks are perennial holiday gift favorites, so expect notebook PCs to be heavily promoted alongside tablets again this year to drive sales and floor traffic. We’re likely to see equal measures of doorbusters and step-up deals,” Koenig said.

At a step below these laptops sits another relatively new category that could have some impact on holiday sales this winter: Chromebooks.

So far these Google-developed devices have carved out a strong niche in the education market, where their low price, generally sub-$300, is attractive to school boards around the country. But there is a consumer opportunity to be had here, as well.

Dang called Chromebooks an interesting category worth investigating, although Toshiba is not a player.

Stice agreed, saying it is hard to nail down exactly where Chromebooks fit in the consumer market or if the manufacturers can generate enough general interest amid all the talk of tablets, Ultrabooks, hybrids, and ultra-thin and light laptops.

What is not expected to influence computer sales at all is the rollout by Microsoft of Windows 8.1. This much-anticipated event on Nov. 18 will give Win 8 owners an interface that is a bit more familiar.

Analysts gave a resounding “no” when asked if Windows 8.1 would help bring people into stores. On the bright side, the updated OS it is likely to bring some relief to current Windows 8 users who are unhappy with the current version.

Holiday shoppers will also have their eyes out for some additional high-tech products this year.

Koenig noted that networking, external storage and even computer monitors will be found on consumer shopping lists.

NPD’s Baker added that solid-state drives have done well so far this year and are expected to continue to do this holiday, along with AC routers and wireless hard drives that function like a network-attached storage (NAS) device.

The all-in-one PC is also likely to grab some attention, Stice noted, as they have already proven to be a bright spot in the market. Adding some extra zing to the category are the new AIO form factors that enable the devices to lay flat on a table for game play or that have an internal battery allowing for some portability are a good draw, he said.