What comes after the MacBook Air

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This holiday season offers the recent crop of low-power, thin and light “ultrabooks” their first big chance to prove that they resonate with consumers. Brands like Asus, Acer, Toshiba and Lenovo will have thinner, lightweight designs with longer battery life and near-instant boot times on retail shelves with prices starting at $900. In many ways, these can be seen almost as Windows-based versions of the MacBook Air. Will they boost PC sales the way the MacBook Air boosted Apple’s overall Mac sales? And, now that the Air seemingly has competition, where will Apple take notebook design next?

Apple has continually edited the design of the Air since it debuted in 2008. The 2010 major redesign and price drop has turned it into a big seller for the company. Apple took out the ethernet port, optical drive, hard disk drive and left just two USB ports in the Air. But these non-traditional features have not driven potential notebook buyers running for the hills: Reports after Apple launched 11.6-inch and 13.3-inch models in late 2010 indicated the company sold 1 million in the first two months. Customers responded positively to the extremely lightweight, solid-state storage-only option, near-instant boot/wake times, long battery life, and most importantly, the $999 starting price. A subtler set of updates to the line this summer lead the company to drop its previous (and popular) entry-level notebook, the white MacBook, altogether.

Ultrabook makers are, a year later, following in Apple’s footsteps, both in terms of design and features. But it’s been mostly at the behest of Intel. The chipmaker has encouraged PC makers to make ultrabooks, based on lower-power Intel chips (of course). The results, so far, are not exact copies of the Air’s feature set — for instance, the Acer Aspire S has dropped the optical drive but kept the hard drive. But the prices are close to the Air and the overall design inspiration is unmistakable.

So far there are indications that great expectations may need to be modified, as early reports say that Acer and Asus aren’t shipping nearly as many ultrabooks as initially thought. But that could change once the holiday buying season is here, and people are shopping for super portable, well-priced notebooks.

But will it help boost the overall PC market? The PC business, as we know, isn’t in great shape, thanks to a bad economy and a growing interest in touchscreen tablets. Apple has bucked that industry trend — selling more iPads while still selling more computers — and a huge reason is the MacBook Air, which the company said last month helped lead to a record quarter for Mac sales. But the company is obviously not going to sit still.

The things that really wowed people about the Air — the incredible thinness, the deletion of non-necessary features, and the responsiveness of the machine — have to be improved upon. So how can they? Well, as some very accomplished industrial designers told me, it’s very hard to get much thinner than the Air and still have a traditional notebook form factor. Take away too much and you essentially wind up with the iPad.

So it’s going to have to come with advances in software, in interfaces and new forms of input, like voice and touch, and the continual improvement in battery size, life, and — while we know chips will regularly get faster — how manufacturers deal with heat dissipation and battery life in conjunction with those chips’ advances.

To read about these and other factors facing the companies designing our future notebooks, and what some of today’s most forward-thinking electronics designers have to say about it, please read my latest long view at GigaOM Pro.

Asus Zenbook image courtesy of Amazon.com

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