Portability is Back

December 22, 2010 § 4 Comments

The first consumer oriented laptops were created to combine the multiple hardware components needed for a standard desktop computer into a single portable unit. The PC industry has been dominated by desktops since the very beginning, and laptops were long accepted as compact but decidedly less functional machines to be used in conjunction with the desktop. It was standard practice to use a desktop as a primary computer and a laptop as a secondary computer while traveling. Unsurprisingly, consumers found the laptop’s inability to perform as competently as the desktop quite irritating, and for what seemed like eternities, hardware companies pushed to close the gap between the desktop and the laptop in terms of overall performance. For the most part, they succeeded, as many laptops that can be purchased today perform just as well as their desktop counterparts. However, in the push to equalize desktops and laptops, the most important differentiator between the two types of computers, portability, was all but lost.

Take for example Toshiba’s attractively named Qosmio X505-Q894 laptop. It’s undoubtedly a capable machine, with 4GB of DDR3 memory, a 500 GB hard drive, a NVIDIA GeForce graphics card, a BluRay player, and a whopping 18.4” screen. If you couldn’t care less about the majority of these features, don’t be alarmed, as Toshiba’s target audience for this machine is probably smaller than the laptop itself. Here’s what you do care about: the machine weighs over ten pounds and has less than four hours of battery life. Portability was obviously not one of Toshiba’s main concerns.

What do you think weighs more, the kid or the laptop?

None of the features in the Qosmio X5-whatever would seem out of place in a desktop computer or even in a video game console, but they have no business being in a portable computer. The internet has become the primary source of our daily computing activities, and quick access to the internet does not require a 18.4” screen. If I had to guess, most consumers probably only use their computer’s word processor and internet browser on a daily basis. A company called Asus came to the same conclusion when they launched their extraordinarily successful line of Eee PC netbooks, which generally have around 10 inch screens, over ten hours of battery life, and will cost you less than $400. They won’t run StarCraft II on the highest settings, but for many consumers they are satisfactory.

Even though my MacBook Pro is only two years old, the developments over the past two years have made it seem like somewhat of a relic. I will not criticize the laptop’s performance, it still is unbelievably fast and responsive, but with its 15-inch screen and nearly six-pound weight, it’s a pain to lug around. Compare this to Apple’s recent MacBook Air that has an 11-inch screen, weighs just over two pounds, and is less than 0.7 inches thick. The Air is not a netbook like the Eee PC, it is a fully functioning Mac that can run the vast majority of current software, but its arguably most remarkable feat is the omission of needless features. The Air does not have a CD drive, given that physical CDs are quickly becoming a thing of the past. The Air does not have a hard drive, given that a hard drive’s many moving parts are impractical for a portable computer. It uses the faster flash memory instead, and even though the Air stores far less data than the Toshiba monster, in all honesty it no longer matters. Data is moving away from our hard drives and into the cloud thanks to products like MobileMe and Dropbox, which are each worthy of blog posts of their own.

The MacBook Air and Apple iPad

After all this talk on how laptops evolved into Godzilla-sized entertainment centers and then into something that can actually fit into a backpack, it is time to have a look at what might be the most monumental change to portable computing, well, ever. Apple introduced the world to tablets with the iPad just last year, and while it was not the first tablet ever released, it was the first practical one. Much like the iPhone, Apple’s competitors first denounced the device then further legitimized it by introducing tablets of their own. The iPad provides the two basic needs of computing, the word processor and access to the internet, while giving users an entirely new and exciting way to access their content.

The large touch screen display eliminates the barrier between the user and the content by requiring the much more direct user interaction. Flipping through a PDF on the iPad mimics the feel of flipping through a physical document, which is much more natural and intuitive than massaging the down arrow key. Another one of the iPad’s distinct advantages can be found in the plethora of apps. Like the Eee PC, the iPad also cannot run StarCraft II at the highest settings, but it can be used to play original and compelling games tailor made for the device. Blizzard may not know whether StarCraft is being played on a desktop or a laptop, but App Store developers know that their games are being played on a portable device and thus design them to be easily accessible on the go. Aside from playing games, the iPad can be used to stream movies, to tune a guitar, to manage financial statements, to read a newspaper, and so much more. All in all, it’s a more natural way to interact with content, and a more portable and cheaper way as well.

It took years, but finally we have realized that laptops are not desktops and should not attempt to be so. We added useless features, then removed them, then got rid of the remaining features we thought we needed (see: the keyboard). Desktops are becoming increasingly rare in this day and age, a sure sign that we need our content to be with us everywhere we go. The only question is: how will we take it with us? The laptop has long been the sole solution, but the rise of the tablet has paved the way for a whole new form of device to take its place. I cannot predict which device, if either, will win out down the road or if another will come to take the world by storm, but never has their been a more exciting time for portable computing. For the first time, our portable computers are truly meant to be portable.

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§ 4 Responses to Portability is Back

  • Adam Hurwitz says:

    Just last night I was thinking about this issue and thought of a cool idea.

    What if you had your mac book, but you could detach the screen from the keyboard and internal unit piece. This way you could use your screen to stand alone and type on your keyboard in a more comfortable position, as well as switch the screen to an Ipad like mode when advanced typing is not necessary.

    Then, when you want to use your macbook in its traditional form you just simply reattach the two components.

    • It’s a compelling idea, one that’s had a lot of people thinking. Check out these iPad accessories: Keyboard dock | Keyboard case

      I think the problem with the idea is that the tablet loses a bit of identity. A tablet is different from a laptop, so attaching a keyboard to one seems almost like missing the point. Then again, my sister has an iPad and she uses the keyboard dock for homework assignments, so I definitely see where it comes in handy.

    • Edouard Lorenceau says:

      Someone made a laptop with a screen u can flip around to
      use like a tablet instead of your keyboard. They did that many
      years ago tho, but I think the iPad/iPhone touch tech has started
      setting the bar in responsiveness/feel of touchscreens, so they’ve
      matched it to that nowadays. So today it could be worth it. Sam: I
      think you’re right about most of these. That said I think most
      tablets aren’t ready to stand on their own just yet. What Apple’s
      done is make software user-generated (which should’ve happened
      years ago, but Steve Jobs’d been fired from Apple…), so software
      now fits your every needs and is easily findable. Why tablets have
      time before beating the laptop is that software companies (big
      ones, read Adobe, Autodesk, game companies) have spent too much
      time/money on other platforms, and they’re too worried about the
      platforms diversity of this new hardware category. The reason the
      PC exploded was because there was only Windows to develop for. Now,
      if Adobe wants to make Photoshop for tablets they have to consider
      longevity of tablet OSs (they should know IOS isn’t going anywhere
      tho…) However, when Adobe makes a full-featured photoshop for
      IOS, a lot of other big companies will follow suit and that will be
      the death of the laptop. They haven’t done so partly because big
      companies = big risks = one platform. The other reason is they’ve
      spent YEARS fine-tuning their software for that PC user-interface
      and for those expert customers. Cloud storage is still too early on
      to be a worthwhile mass alternative (actually I think it needs a
      ubiquitous solution, but even Apple’s MobileMe hasn’t done
      it(horrible name IMO)). Because of that a tablet/laptop hybrid is
      interesting (except they don’t give you access to the only good
      tablet platform, the IOS). Google’s CEO said that the Web 3.0 is
      webapps, and he’s so right. It’s why Google’s launched the Chrome
      Store (check it out btw) and why they’re launching the Chrome OS.
      However, it’s probably going to fail because Webapps aren’t
      ubiquitous enough, partly because of a lack of a webstore like the
      Chrome Store. They can’t expect to change 2 customer behaviors at
      the same time, but they hope that their name will be enough to make
      it so. Also they know that if they succeed, it’s Apple-like revenue
      on a technology (the net) that’s not going anywhere for decades,
      and in which they’re market leaders. In other words, they’re being
      too greedy. Last note: the desktop is becoming an office-tool.
      Problem is that because mass customers are not going to want
      desktop parts anymore, they’re gonna stop making them, so it’s
      goodbye desktop.

  • Niran says:

    I enjoyed this article man. You made some strong points
    about portability making its way into the marketplace, permanently.
    Like you said, I think a post about “The Cloud” or MobileMe would
    be appropriate.

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