Windows ultrabooks: What's Apple response?

Analysts take a shot at how Apple may react to PC rivals of the MacBook Air

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"Frankly, it's tough to see how Apple can make the Air all that much better," said Marshall, who called that laptop his favorite Apple product of all time.

Another possible move by Apple, agreed both analysts, would be to reframe the iPad, or at least a version of it, as an ultrabook rival by designing a keyboard and case integrated with the tablet and its iOS operating system.

Third-party vendors, notably Zagg -- which also designed the $99 Bluetooth-based keyboard and case sold by Logitech -- have had limited success with such an accessory.

But Apple should be able to do those designs one better, thought Gottheil.

"Apple hasn't filled the gap that others may exploit with a tablet that also offers a keyboard," said Gottheil, referring to expectations that later this year PC makers will launch devices that function as either a tablet or as a lightweight notebook. "Their little [wireless] keyboard doesn't have a nice carrying case, but I think they will find a way to fill [that gap]."

Gottheil sees Apple tackling the tablet-plus-keyboard issue not as a discrete package but as an add-on, along the lines of the approach it took last year when it launched the Smart Cover accessory for the iPad 2.

But although Apple will face increased competition from ultrabooks this year or next, analysts highlighted the enviable position the company finds itself in.

"It's kind of ironic that it's taken PC OEMs four years to come up with a viable alternative to the MacBook Air," said Marshall.

"If ultrabooks are only thin, light MacBook Air knockoffs, they won't be very successful," chimed in Jack Gold or J. Gold Associates, in an email last week. "They need to be more."

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Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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