Ultrabooks the New Tablets, at Least at CES 2012

Ultrabooks will appear in significant numbers at the 2012 CES, suggesting manufacturers are obsessed with thin-and-light beyond tablets.

At the 2011 edition of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, the annual January event where pretty much all manufacturers in the tech industry (save Apple) unleash their latest and greatest gizmos, tablets dominated the discussion.

Nearly everywhere you looked, it seemed, a company had an Android-based touch-screen in some stage of development. It reached the point where Microsoft appeared conspicuous because it didn't overly emphasize some tablet initiative, although its booth featured a handful of portable touch-screens primarily for the Asian market.

Over the course of the year that followed, many of those tablets flew into market battle-not only the Android versions, but also Hewlett-Packard's webOS-powered TouchPad and Research In Motion's BlackBerry-branded PlayBook-and promptly crashed and burned in the face of the Apple iPad's overwhelming market dominance, like X-Wings smacking into the impenetrable hull of the Death Star.

In other words, despite the combined manufacturers' attempts throughout 2011 to wrestle a sizable portion of the tablet market from Apple's hands, the situation remains largely unchanged heading in 2012, although analysts generally predict that Android will continue to gain some share as those manufacturers continue to update their existing product lines. Microsoft is also prepping its upcoming Windows 8 for a sizable tablet push, which could present a sizable new twist on the game.

For the upcoming CES 2012, it seems a significant number of companies are prepping for the Next Big Thing in the form of "ultrabooks," or super-thin laptops with more powerful specs than netbooks, which were the Next Big Thing before tablets.

At a New York City event Nov. 18, meant to preview wares that will be at CES, manufacturers, including Asus, Acer, Toshiba and HP, all demonstrated ultrabooks. Meanwhile, PC Pro indicates that some 30 to 50 ultrabooks will debut at CES, quoting as its source a CES organizer speaking at a London event.

Intel remains an aggressive driver of the nascent ultrabook phenomenon, partnering with manufacturers to issue devices that conform to the chip maker's specifications for the devices. At the recent CEATEC conference in Japan, for example, Intel demonstrated ultrabooks with roughly similar design parameters from Toshiba (with the Dynabook), Acer (the Aspire S3-1) and Asus (the UX21).

Ultrabooks in many ways represent an attempt by Intel and those manufacturers to leverage the same interest in thin, portable devices that has driven the tablet phenomenon.

The question is whether the ultrabooks demonstrated at CES will prove a hit for their manufacturers, or a tablet-style flame-out.

Follow Nicholas Kolakowski on Twitter