There is seemingly no end to the portability trend. Devices are getting smaller and at the same time more powerful. We carry in our pockets devices more powerful than desktops of a recent vintage. We are seeing Moore’s Law in action.
The changing nature of portable devices will continue to have a sweeping effect on the electronics industry. As we’re able to fit more and more transistors onto smaller chips, we can do away with cumbersome relics of the past. Might the laptop computer soon become one of these casualties?
The appeal of the laptop
For the past decade-plus, laptop computers have been our bastions of portability. They’re near perfect facsimiles of our powerful desktop computers, yet they’re small enough to fit into a backpack or messenger bag. They have in many ways untethered us from our desks.
The appeal of the laptop is then clear. We can not only do the same things we can on a desktop, but we can do them with the exact same interface. We can run the same software, open the same documents, and access the same web browsers. It’s a totally familiar feeling.
Because it’s so familiar, chances are laptops will stick around for a while. But they could eventually be overshadowed by a new form factor.
Reintroduction of the tablet
In 2010 Apple reintroduced us to a form factor that was previously ahead of its time. Many companies had tried to sell tablet PCs in the late 90s and early 00s, but consumers weren’t buying. They were in every way unfamiliar: the form factor, the interface, and the software. People simply do not like change.
By 2010, Apple had already given us a form factor similar to a tablet PC, only smaller. The iPad is little more than a stretched out iPhone. That was familiar to consumers. Combined with Apple’s marketing power, it translated to millions of sales. Others followed, with less success of course, but the tablet market continues growing.
A tablet’s advantages
While the laptop still holds its old appeals, the tablet has improved on many of them. In fact, the tablet can be said to be superior to the laptop in:
- Portability. At approximately 7 or 10 inches, the tablet is quite smaller than any standard laptop. Tablets hold a further advantage because they lack the cumbersome hinge that separates a laptop’s keyboard from its screen.
- Durability. While laptops have become more durable over the years, they still have inherent vulnerabilities. They contain magnetic hard drives, which contain moving parts. Optical drives also contain moving parts. Both can break down if jostled frequently — which is inevitable while traveling. Tablets have solid state hard drives and no optical drives, so everything is a bit more stable.
- Battery life. As with durability, laptop battery life has also improved. But even long-lasting laptop batteries don’t match the life of a tablet.
Familiarity hindering change
Of course, the laptop still retains its advantage in familiarity, which is why people still prefer laptops. Just consider that:
1. Laptops still run the same operating systems as desktops. We’re generally more familiar with our desktop-based operating systems, so laptops hold the advantage. Tablets use mobile operating systems, which are a bit different in nature. The lack of one-to-one compatibility with desktops and even laptops holds back tablets.
2. Laptops retain the traditional keyboard-and-screen layout. We’re used to typing on physical keyboards and seeing the output on a monitor. A laptop recreates this almost perfectly from the desktop. The tablet has just one isurface for input and output.
3. Laptops retain the point-and-click interface. Again, this is what is familiar to us, so it’s understandable that we stick with this rather than something new.
Not only does the laptop’s familiarity keep it afloat, but so does recent innovation. We’ve moved from laptops with magnetic hard drives and CD drives to bare bones devices. While that didn’t quite work out with netbooks, Ultrabooks seem to be the next big thing in portable computing.
In a world where you can find laptops under 3 pounds, and those laptops are still familiar to us, people will choose them. Yes, they’re still more cumbersome than tablets, and the battery life issue is the same, but these Ultrabooks are more portable and more durable than older laptops. That will keep them alive for quite some time.
Yet it seems that we’ve hit the end of the road in terms of laptop evolution. Where can we go from here? The only sensible solution is to remove the screen hinge and make a single-bodied device. Yet that sounds much like a tablet.
Chances are, the laptop market will eventually merge with the tablet market. They are devices with similar goals in mind. Since laptops have little room to improve from here, they could begin a new evolution process that makes them just like tablets. Perhaps then we’ll see the tablet market truly explode.