How the war between tablets and PCs will unfold

Apple, ARM, Intel, Microsoft, and Qualcomm are jockeying to win in the emerging new world order, but not all will prevail

When schools in Idaho -- hardly America's most progressive state -- announce they'll be spending big bucks on tablets, you know just how widely those mobile devices have penetrated the mainstream market. And when you consider that consumers worldwide downloaded more than 200 million tablet applications during Christmas week alone, you get a sense of the enormous opportunity tablets present to developers, as well as chipmakers and device manufacturers.

That's no news, of course, to companies like Intel, AMD, and Microsoft, whose businesses are rooted in the old desktop-centric computing model. On one hand, the strategic landscape in 2012 is largely being shaped by the collision of two very different computing models: tablets and PCs. On the other hand, providers on both sides of the strategic divide are rapidly hedging their bets.

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You'll see that next week at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), where Qualcomm says it will unveil a PC based on its ARM-licensed chips. In addition, Intel is expected to formally announce availability of its low-power "Medfield" chips for mobile devices and to continue its efforts to make laptops more competitive with tablets by pushing the so-called Ultrabook as an alternative.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is not only hedging its bets by making Windows 8 capable of running on an ARM-based device, it's hedging its hedge: An ARM-based Windows device won't be able to run the Office-type "Win32s" applications that are the main reason people continue to run Windows in huge numbers.

No one is going to score a knockout punch this year. It would certainly make a more exciting story if that were the case, and too many pundits think they can make it so by simply saying it. Instead what we'll see is a series of skirmishes along the edges: Wintel will make some inroads into the mobile arena via Windows 8 tablets, while some (but not that many) consumers and businesses will decide that they no longer need conventional PCs.

There is, though, one company that's guaranteed to win big this year -- and it is Apple.

Businesses will buy both tablets and PCs
Although users have been the first to pick up the tablet, there's increasing evidence that businesses are doing the same. Most recently, a survey by the NPD Group found that nearly three-quarters of U.S. small and medium-sized businesses are planning to buy tablets for employees in 2012. And despite efforts by Google, Samsung and others, "tablet" still means an iPad.

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