The definition of what constitutes a laptop computer is changing. Along with the laptop computer that will fit into your briefcase, there are netbooks that are enjoying explosive growth (because they're really cheap) and tablets, which are getting a lot of hype. No matter how you look at it, laptop computers are getting faster, lighter, more convenient and more capable.
In one sense, the laptop computer has been a remarkably
stable platform. The first laptop I ever used, the Data General One, was in
1984, and it was the prototype for all that followed. Yes, it ran MS-DOS on the
command line, and it weighed 9 pounds, but with its LCD screen, flat keyboard
and clam-shell case, this form factor has remained essentially the same for 26
years. But of course during that time laptop computers have become more
portable, more powerful and more diverse.
Now, the definition of what constitutes a laptop computer is
changing. Along with the laptop computer that will fit into your briefcase,
there are netbooks that are enjoying explosive growth (because they're really
cheap) and tablets, which are getting a lot of hype. And there are computers
that are called laptops but have a size and weight that would seriously strain
anyone's lap. And to make things more interesting, there are few lines among
what constitutes a laptop, a netbook and a tablet.
No matter how you look at it, laptop computers are getting
faster, lighter, more convenient and more capable. The biggest changes that are
already starting to appear are in the choice of processors, the type of storage
and the means of user input. As wireless infrastructure grows, these mobile
computers are gaining wireless capabilities to match. And let's not forget the
To some, the introduction of Apple's iPad, as well as new
tablets apparently under development at HP and Dell, may mean the end of the
laptop. Experts, however, disagree.
"The iPad is not really a computer, it's an appliance,"
explained analyst Craig Mathias of Farpoint Group. He and others point out that
the iPad is essentially a content-consumption device, and while it's possible
to create content with an iPad, it's not really designed for that.
Analyst Jack Gold of J. Gold Associates explains. "A tablet
is a window on the Internet," Gold said. "It's a physical instantiation of a
However, the tablet-as-browser may also be its strength. It
reduces the process of using a browser to its most basic form-an on-screen
image and little else. As it's delivered, the iPad isn't particularly useful
for creating documents or presentations; it does provide a convenient means of
displaying them and providing a platform for presentations. Perhaps because of
this, many companies are making plans to accommodate the iPad. One informal
survey conducted by Citrix Systems, for example, reported that 83 percent of
companies surveyed plan to provide access to personal iPads in some way.
In addition to convenience, the iPad has changed the view of
what users expect of a tablet computer. Until now, the tablet PC ran Windows,
used a stylus, was heavier and had a limited battery life. The slick interface,
the light weight and the longer battery life of the iPad have raised those
expectations for other tablets that might come to market in the future.
Of course a move into the enterprise implies that the iPad
or any other tablet meets the needs of the enterprise in all the areas in which
it has impact. For example, if it's being used in health care, it must meet
HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act)
requirements. Whether it meets all of the necessary
compliance requirements is up to the IT office and the compliance auditors, but
as is the case of so much else in IT, a great deal will depend on what use is
planned for it.
In the case of tablets such as the iPad, the planned use
means a great deal. "You're not going to create a PowerPoint or write a 40-page
document on a tablet," analyst Gold said, noting that the target use has to be
determined in every enterprise for this or any other tablet computer. For
example, using an iPad as your window on the Internet to run Web-based
applications might be a perfect use, but it could also be a challenge given
Apple's continued refusal to support Adobe's Flash.
Other tablets that may appear in the near future could have
similar limitations in meeting enterprise requirements. Right now, the exact
nature of HP's WebOS tablet (assuming it's real) or perhaps an Android-based
tablet, remains to be seen. Perhaps they'll be more enterprise-ready, and
perhaps they'll be pure consumer devices with no real enterprise applications.
But whatever form they take, Gold doubts they'll be a true mainstream solution
to general computing needs. "Why does this make my life easier, faster or
better?" he asked. "Tablets were never a general solution for making my life
better. One of the fundamental issues is that it's got to be better than what
I've got, or why buy it?"
The same is true to some extent with netbook computers.
Their physical size makes them less than totally suitable for many of the tasks
for which people use laptop computers. But to some extent the difference
between netbooks and laptops is getting very fuzzy. Notebook makers are
delivering devices called netbooks that have 12-inch screens and physically
resemble highly portable laptop computers. The overlap is significant, and even
one prior differentiator, the use of Intel's Atom processor, is going away as
some notebook or laptop computers adopt this low-power approach to computing.
Wayne Rash is a Senior Analyst for eWEEK Labs and runs the magazine's Washington Bureau. Prior to joining eWEEK as a Senior Writer on wireless technology, he was a Senior Contributing Editor and previously a Senior Analyst in the InfoWorld Test Center. He was also a reviewer for Federal Computer Week and Information Security Magazine. Previously, he ran the reviews and events departments at CMP's InternetWeek.
He is a retired naval officer, a former principal at American Management Systems and a long-time columnist for Byte Magazine. He is a regular contributor to Plane & Pilot Magazine and The Washington Post.