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 form factor.
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 browser.
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.