TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: Plotting 2013's device siege

Look forward to another year focused on mobility, as Microsoft, Apple and Google revitalise their strategies for domination of the booming device market.

Technology Spectator

Microsoft could make its final mobility stand in 2013 as Apple and Android gadgets go from strength to strength. It's tempting to declare 2013 'The Year of the Tablet', but that year has clearly come and gone. Instead you might declare 2013 to be 'The Year the Tablet Consolidated Its Position in the Mainstream and Finally Usurped Notebooks as Our Portable Computing Device of Choice', although that doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

Several analysts predict that tablets will outsell notebooks this year, and tablets may have already done so in the fourth quarter of 2012 thanks to the Christmas shopping frenzy. Back at TechEd Europe 2012, even Microsoft's own head of Windows Web Services, Antoine Leblond, was banking on tablets outselling notebooks in 2013 – although her faith in Windows 8 leading the charge could be misplaced.

Having given Apple's iPad and the Android army such a massive head start, it's hard to see how Microsoft could claw back much ground this year – unless you fudge the numbers by counting all Windows touchscreen tablets, notebooks and desktops as 'touchscreen device' sales and pit this figure against the iPad. Not that vendors would ever stoop to such trickery to talk up the fortunes of a market underdog. Heaven forbid.

If Windows 8 tablets and smartphones such as Nokia's Lumia 920 can't legitimately carve themselves out a niche this year, it's hard to see how Microsoft could ever claw its way back in the mobility space and pose a serious threat to Apple and Android wundergadgets. Should Windows Phone 8 flop it would be a setback for Microsoft but perhaps a fatal blow to Nokia.

Meanwhile the Microsoft Surface's lukewarm reception doesn't bode well for the future of Windows RT devices. Microsoft's decision to fast-track the Surface into Australian stores such as Harvey Norman and JB Hi-Fi could be interpreted as a sign of either hope or desperation. Its success or failure this year could been seen as a bellwether for Microsoft's wider mobility aspirations. It will also be interesting to follow the response to the more expensive Surface Pro which runs a full version of Windows 8 but bares an ultrabook-equse price tag.

If Microsoft really wants to shake things up this year, it might consider an aggressively-priced 7-inch tablet, perhaps running Windows Phone 8 but more likely Windows RT. A more portable device at a lower price point could help Microsoft gain traction amongst those tempted by tablets but unwilling to stray too far from the Windows/Office ecosystem. Whereas some people have dismissed the 11.6-inch Surface as a poor man's notebook, a 7-inch Surface could shirk the notebook tag and finally be judged on its merits. Alternatively a 5-inch Windows Phone 8 phablet could ride the coattails of the Samsung Galaxy Note.

Even if tablets continue to go from strength to strength in 2013 it won't mean a death sentence for traditional notebooks. There are some tasks for which notebooks – with their physical keyboard and desktop operating system – will always be better suited to than tablets. Notebooks won't die out, they'll just be relegated to the role of specialist device, just as tablet PCs were in the pre-iPad era.

Over at Cupertino, 2013 is likely to be a year of consolidation as we see the release of the iPhone 5S and iPad mini 2 with retina display, building on last year's significant redesigns. There's talk of Apple releasing a range of iPhones in a choice of sizes, although this seems unlikely unless Apple has finally conceded that they only way it can win back smartphone market share from Android is by releasing a budget iPhone.

A budget iPhone would most likely resemble a stripped-down iPhone 3G S with limited storage, an older processor, a cheap plastic chassis and a non-retina display. Such a device would clash with Apple's one-size-fits-all benevolent dictatorship, but of course that's exactly what Apple did with the last year's iPad mini. Apple didn't strip features from the iPad mini to limit the cannibalisation of traditional iPad sales so it's possible, although unlikely, that a budget iPhone could simply be a 3.5-inch iPhone 5.

The release of the iPad mini marked a major change of direction for Apple, after years of Steve Jobs mocking smaller tablets (even though Jobs certainly had a hand in the iPad mini).This year will give us a better indication of Apple's direction in the post-Jobs era. Also expect Apple to continue the iPad-ification of MacOS in 2013, tweaking the interface and stripping out so-called legacy features such as DVD drives.

Over in Android land, Google's range of Nexus reference devices have set the standard for 2013 in terms of price and performance. Should Australian telcos embrace the budget Nexus 4 this year it could really hit the iPhone where it hurts, although so far they've shown little interest in the cut-price competitor to the Samsung Galaxy S III and HTC One X. Telstra claims it ignored the Nexus 4 due to its lack of LTE, so it will be interesting to see how it reacts if the next Nexus smartphone embraces 4G.

As for tablets the Nexus 7 and 10 will continue to make their presence felt this year, either through direct sales or by the fact they've raised the bar for other Android devices. Samsung is naturally the one to watch, not just for its smartphones and tablets but also for the 5.5-inch Galaxy Note II (there's already talk of a 6-inch Galaxy Note III). Some punters are already declaring 2013 to be 'The Year of the Phablet', although it's also a specialist device and many people will continue to dismiss 5 inch smartphones as the worst of both worlds.