The Evolution and Death of the Laptop Computer

This month we are looking at the future — and last week we spoke of the changes that are going on in desktop computers. I pointed out that one of the big problems with every single one of the available desktop concepts is the lack of a mobile solution.

With the Zotob virus allegedly being spread by improperly patched notebook computers and bringing down an impressive number of news sites last week, the future of the notebook computer, at least as we now know it, may be changing dramatically.

Apple Impact

As far as direction, strangely enough, it is once again hard not to include Apple in the discussion. The last big change for laptops came with the Titanium line which redefined screen size and set a very different standard with regard to form factor and performance. The lead designers have since left Apple, which may explain why this form has stagnated of late. However, if we go further back, we can also see the likely emerging alternative to the laptop.

The Apple Newton was an amazing, if flawed, device. It reset the size of a mobile computer, reset the user interface, and showcased just how hard it is to birth something new. Unfortunately it was also the platform favored by former Apple CEO John Scully, and with the subsequent Apple strategy of eliminating everything that executive put solidly in place there was simply no way it could survive.

However, it did birth Palm, and Palm birthed RIM, and RIM birthed the latest version of Microsoft Mobile.

Palm to RIM

Many may remember that the huge winner in the consumer electronics market before the iPod was the Palm Pilot. When Palm had its initial IPO as a part of 3Com, the company had a market valuation that exceeded not only their parent, but vastly larger companies like General Motors as well. While Palm handheld computers never really replaced laptops, they did lead to another company — Research in Motion — and its Blackberry (nicknamed by some as “Crackberry”) products did replace some laptop computers and provided some very strong benefits to boot.

These benefits included lower purchase and deployment costs, improved ease of use, improved connectivity, improved portability and improved battery life. The tradeoff was capability: Blackberrys could only run a limited set of applications, they couldn’t open many attachments, and authoring long e-mails, let alone documents, was unacceptably painful.

Over time the devices have become more capable. Palm purchased Handspring and improved the Treo into a viable, and arguably superior, product to the Blackberry and HP has recently brought out a Treo-like device that is, in a number of ways, arguably better than its predecessors. In addition, Microsoft has improved its hardware-independent platform to one that is equal, if not superior, to the RIM and Palm platforms that came before it.

Currently RIM is in a life-or-death battle over what it believes to be its intellectual property and things aren’t going well. PalmSource (the unit that owns the Palm OS) has had to sell its name to raise capital — never a good thing — and we have yet to see a compelling device running Microsoft’s new, and now fully capable, Windows Mobile platform; HP’s device runs the less capable previous version. A lot of this should change for the better over the next few months, but handheld computers are on death watch right now and these new smartphones only showcase a potential alternative that is more phone-like.

However, with smartphones, there is a rather big size and usability gap. When it comes to size, people continue to prefer small phones, which creates an upper limit that may be too low for most seriously thinking of replacing a laptop for anything more than e-mail, scheduling, and contact management.

If you want more, we end up back at Apple and what happened to the Titanium design team.

OQO: The True Laptop Alternative

The old Apple Titanium design team had a different idea: What if you could shrink the laptop and make it pocketable? They presented their idea to Apple management and in a move reminiscent of Xerox a decade or so before, Apple saw no benefit to a laptop you could pocket.

They subsequently left Apple and built the OQO using a Transmeta processor and what was then cutting-edge mobile technology. Like any version-one product, there are some tradeoffs — but the product is vastly more capable than the earlier generation of handheld computers and isn’t trying to be an overly large phone, which improves its usage model.

Even though they lack the kind of marketing support Apple would have provided that was a critical part of the iPod, OQO has done reasonably well. As the technology bar continues to move, future generations of the product promise to be vastly more capable.

Size remains an issue, however. If you can put this in your pocket, for many, the device is too small to use, which makes it a good tool for many but clearly, it is not a real replacement for the laptop, at least not yet.

Tablet PC

The Tablet PC, in slate form, looks and feels like a big OQO. While most are the same size, Motion Computing just brought out a device that is closer to the OQO size than it is to a traditional notebook computer. It will fit in a large coat pocket and has a display that is easier on aging eyes than the smaller device. Motion hasn’t integrated the keyboard, which is probably a requirement for a replacement product, but you can now see a working device that is larger and get a sense for where user needs with regard to size are and where the related fixed screen technology currently is.

Tablets, in general, were expected to replace standard laptops starting this year and, for the most part, that isn’t happening. They are moving aggressively in education, which does suggest this move is still on its way, but it is likely still several years out. One of the big limiters for this has been the inability to make the pen-based interface available for desktop computers and, at least now, many are moving between the two product types.

The tablet PC is clearly coming but it is more an evolution of the user interface right now than a true replacement for the existing laptop computer.

Head-Mounted Displays

One technology we have been watching closely is head-mounted displays. These both lower the price of the portable component and remove one of the size constraints. A head mounted display can appear to the user as an incredibly large display depending on resolution. Issues have been nausea (they cause motion sickness in many), cost of the display (the best one I’ve used cost $20,000) and complexity. You have a separate device and cables making you kind of look like a Borg from Star Trek Next Generation — an advantage for some, a disadvantage for most.

While eventually this may cause a massive shift in portable computer design, that shift is still years out, particularly since key vendors are exiting the market.

The Death of the Laptop?

The laptop will probably last through this decade, but we are exploring different alternatives and as such it is likely that conclusions on this subject will be different in 2011. The market desperately needs to move to a more appliance-like device that is much more portable and much less power-hungry. With increasing wireless bandwidth and availability our options can only increase. Micro-displays are advancing, thanks to rear projection TVs, at an incredible rate, making head-mounted displays more capable and more likely long term.

While we have a number of choices, for most, the laptop, with some enhancements, is likely to keep its place for at least the next five years.

Rob Enderle, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.

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