What's Next for Laptops?

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2010-05-28

What's Next for Laptops?

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.

The Distinction Is Blurring

In fact, the distinction between netboook and laptop computers may have already disappeared. Some analysts, including Mathias, already lump them together. Tablets, likewise, may be morphing into notebook computers more than supplanting them. The touch screen and multitouch technology that's already being used on the iPad and on a variety of smartphones is pretty much a sure thing for laptop computers. Touch screens have been around for years, and so have tablets that can switch between being laptop computers and using touch-sensitive screens. The biggest difference that's on the horizon will be the adoption of some of the technologies that have seen success in the tablet and mobile world. For example, Apple's iPad uses the same operating environment as its iPod Touch. HP's rumored Hurricane tablet may use Palm's WebOS. These new environments will also bring their user interfaces and media display capabilities.

Another area that's already making the transition from mobile devices to notebook computers is solid state storage. While rotating hard disks will clearly be around for a while because of their low price and high capacity, their days in the world of mobile computers, including laptops, are numbered. Solid state disks are immune from the moderate shocks of daily mobility, and also use less power, which in turn allows for greater battery life. Some netbook computers and a few notebook computers already offer solid state storage as an option, but rapid growth in that area is held back by the cost of providing large capacity solid state storage. While the cost will certainly change in the near future, solid state storage is still a ways out of the general run of portable computers.

In the shorter term, however, it's starting to look like a few of the trends that are already showing up in consumer laptop computers have started to make their way into the enterprise as well. In addition, notebook computers will diversify even more than they already have, with desktop and workstation replacement devices becoming more common. In addition, according to Carol Hess-Nickels, HP's director of Worldwide Business Notebook Marketing, you're going to see big changes in industrial design.

Hess-Nickels said that new business notebooks will feature a variety of colors, but in addition will be thinner and lighter than what we're used to seeing. Taking a page from the netbook approach, she said that optical drives for laptop computers will become optional to save weight. She also said that durability is growing in importance, and that more laptop computers will feature metal cases. Hess-Nickels also pointed out that enterprise notebooks will need to feature a long lifecycle (the reason for the emphasis on durability) and security features such as built-in encryption and biometric sensors.

Communications, both within the enterprise and externally, is growing in importance for laptop computers, and while wide area wireless support is already part of some laptops, it's a feature that will be growing. The wireless capabilities will include GPS functionality that will enable GIS software and will also help in recovering lost or stolen devices. Hess-Nickels said that battery life is improving to as much as 24 hours between charges with new processors and better battery technology.

And tablets will come to the enterprise but will supplement rather than supplant laptop computers. They will be very important to health care, insurance and education, and to some extent will provide capabilities similar to the iPad while retaining the capability to be a secure, functioning enterprise device.

There is, of course, a series of improvements you may not see in the new laptop and tablet computers to come. Hess-Nickels said that HP is trying to satisfy the business needs to be as environmentally sensitive as possible, an effort that's becoming common in enterprise notebook computers. She said this includes building machines that are recyclable, are free of environmental contaminants such as mercury and are manufactured in an environmentally sound manner.


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