Is The Laptop Dead? Yup

2012 is thought to be the year of the Ultrabook, but though these slim machines may prove successful they can't disguise one odd fact: The laptop is a dead design. When will it actually pass away and leave room for a future device?

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Intel has been pushing a reference design on Eastern manufacturers for months now, and the pressure is finally paying off. Maker after maker has revealed its own take on what's dubbed the Ultrabook. Consumers may be pleased by the focus on high design, Intel will be pleased it has a new vehicle for its processors, and manufacturers will be pleased they have a seemingly new toy to promote and sell for profit. The Wall Street Journal has even written a piece on them: "For PCs, Hope in a Slim Profile," and they're predicted to be everywhere at CES 2012. The thing is the Ultrabook isn't new, nor is it revolutionary. It's proof that the laptop is now an evolutionary dead end in computer history.

A lightweight PC with long battery life, petite format, and full-featured PC functionality ... that's a rough description of an Ultrabook. Remember this, we'll come back to it. But in essence the Ultrabook is a MacBook Air, only slightly more typically PC-like, and sporting some flavor of Microsoft Windows 7 aboard it as its OS. In the Mac versus PC war, this is perhaps the most complete example of a Mac design being cloned into a PC design paradigm--so much so that some Ultrabooks to be released are sure to attract the attention of Apple's IP lawyers, so similar are they in shape, format, arrangement of ports and sockets, and color. 

Apple's innovation was to build an all-metal chassis (which actually permits the shape to be slimmer due to its monocoque structure) around a full-powered computer that lacks an optical drive and eschews a hard drive in favor of solid state drives that are faster and more power-friendly at the expense of large capacity, and favors only a few output ports. It's a Jon Ive special, one might say--the Air is a laptop boiled down to its simplest essence, just a keyboard, screen, trackpad, and a few ports. The Air has become one of Apple's fastest-selling machines, with users loving its almost instant-on speed, light but strong body, and pure, attractive design.

That's what Intel is chasing, of course. The Ultrabook plan has hit a few flaws, with many early headlines suggesting makers were having difficulties meeting the Air's $999 price point thanks to the raw cost of components and later headlines noting makers had to switch to alternative cheaper materials and forcing Intel to drop prices. But it looks like Intel's effort will work out, and more and more ultrabooks will probably arrive in 2012. With Apple rumored to be leading the charge, bringing the Air format to a 15-inch laptop, the Ultrabook format will probably sway the design of the majority of laptops produced from 2012 onward. They will sell because they do offer significant benefits to users.

But remember that description of the Ultrabook? Almost to a word it fits an earlier laptop reinvention--the netbook. These cheap half-powered machines were incredibly popular a handful of years ago when the economic outlook was dim, and compared to the weighty "full" laptop, they seemed to offer a new degree of portability and extended battery life that promised new experiences to users. 

They sold by the millions, but then the star faded: The economy picked up, users realized they weren't fully capable machines that could in all circumstances substitute for the full-feature laptop of which they were a pale echo, and though the netbook is still on sale it's now merely another type of computer on sale.

We are drawing the comparison between the two here--the Ultrabook is perhaps a more considered, full-featured version of the netbook.

But Apple's Air is the touchstone for what may be a laptop design evolution, but it's not a revolution in the same way the iPhone was to the smartphone business. The Air and the Ultrabook are merely the calm, polished peak of laptop design. There's nothing extra, there's nothing superfluous, they offer powerful processing, speedy responses, and longer battery life than you may have expected from their tote-friendly mass. But they still need laptop staples: a keyboard, a webcam, ports, wireless powers, a quality screen, and a pointing device--in Apple's case the simplest most innovative implementation of the trackpad, in giant size.

There's nowhere to go from here. How may one improve the Air into the Air II? It's about as simple an edition of the laptop format--which Apple, to some extent, invented, that's possible. By definition, the Ultrabook is the same. You may add features like a touchscreen or perhaps 3-D, a built-in pico-projector, or some other tricks, but that would be gilding the lily, and the essential format is the same. And it works--we're all used to portable computing, and to using a keyboard and trackpad to control a windows/icons/mice/pointers user interface such as OS X or Windows 7.

And yes, if it ain't broke ... don't fix it.

But it means the laptop is dead. There's literally no place left to take it, innovatively. Makers will churn them out for several years yet, but they'll be rewarmed editions of what we see in 2012. And when this sort of evolutionarly cul de sac is reached, it means one thing: Massive scope for an innovative new product to revolutionize portable computing for the consumer around the world. Shrewd industry observers will suggest the tablet PC is perfectly poised to slot into this niche: It has a totally new user experience, it lets consumers relate to computers in a wholly new and more intimate way, it offers new interactions that aren't possible with the unweildy hinged format of a laptop--such as motion controlled gaming--and it's a true go-anywhere device. If it evolves a little more past its current perceived "lightweight" computing uses, it'll be an even stronger contender.

We're not saying laptops are going to disappear momentarily. They're still selling incredibly well, and they will do for some time. But the Utrabook isn't the silver bullet to securing their future--they're instead almost like a well-polished, perfectly refined full stop at the end of the design description of the device. Something better will soon hove into view, and we'll love using it. That's why the portable computing game is so hot, why there's so much scope for innovation and that's why the immediate future is so exciting.

[Image: Flickr user Radiant Guy]

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14 Comments

  • Ramon Ray

    Laptop is not DEAD. By any means. Sure tablets are growing in use and I own one. But guess what I now carry two devices. My tablet for "tablet" work - and my notebook (very light) for serious work with a full keyboard and monitor. Ramon Ray, Smallbiztechnology.com

  • MayAlas

    Well for me, personally, I would still prefer to use my old laptop compared to other newly launched tablets.

  • Scott Gaulin

    Bogus Article! I just bought a new car should I now call it an ULTRA-AUTO since it is lighter, faster, more fuel efficient and has more features than my first car? What a waste of space.

  • Michael Brown

    Article quote: "But it means the laptop is dead. There's literally no place left to take it, innovatively. Makers will churn them out for several years yet, but they'll be rewarmed editions of what we see in 2012."

    Hmph!  I suppose that means the automobile is dead too.  In fact, that must have died about 75 years ago.  We just weren't told.  I mean, seeing as how there is no place else to take the process of getting one from point A to point B, how can there be any future at all for the automobile.

  • Jay Eskenazi

    I think you're completely off base. Netbooks took off and became popular because they were lightweight, very portable, and Cheap. But they suffered from serious usability issues - that 9 or 10" screen and small keyboard are bad ergonomics for adults and a bad user experience that often required scrolling webpages sideways. Then the ipad comes along with much more computing power, a battery life that is 10 hours, a fairly low price point, and great usability. That contributed to making netbooks even more useless. Macbook airs and ipad established the value of flash drive+super light weight+ instant on+ long battery life - those combinations really change the way you work. When a device boots up in a few seconds for many people it's seen as considerably different and usage is different. Plus the new computers are best of breed. So while the netbooks is dying BECAUSE it's sub-par, these new computers are selling well BECAUSE they are best of breed. Once you have a super light weight computer that's very portable, turns on quickly, has a good size screen and long battery life, there's no turning back...

  • Ted allen

    Wom, stating Mac came before PC and that apple is in pursuit of a law suit, Wow. That the laptop is dead but Mac is putting out a new better laptop, Wow.  I think this writter is short on facts and common sense. Maybe Microsoft wil put a littl Mac in their product and may PC's will sue Mac this time.  Idon'tt think Ma has a moopoly on frivilous law suits.

  • john wright

    I think people should have a bit of a reality check here.
    Laptop, Netbook, Ultrabook, Air - these are all the same thing - a portable computer.  Apart from the word laptop, the first name applied to this size of computer, all the other words are just the marketing departments' attempts at making naive buyers think they are getting something special here.  They are not.

    They are getting a small portable computer.  Some are lighter, some are slimmer, some are faster, some have smaller screens, but none of these things makes them a new type device. Unless you are someone in the marketing department, desperate to attract attention to themselves by inventing a new buzzword, and hoping to be hailed as the savour of the company (assuming it sells well).

    The laptop is a proven successful design, continually being improved (not evolving, it's not a new species of device), enabling users to continue working in a number of different locations.  It will never die.  The marketing department may fool some people into thinking they are buying something new. but they are not.  They are buying a new name. Sometimes with more bits present, sometimes with less bits present.  Laptops with Wi-Fi were not hailed as a major new revolutionary device, merely the same old device with a new bit of hardware added to take advantage of Wi-Fi routers.

    It's called improving things. New hardware gets incorporated into an existing device, so it can do more things. It may get faster or lighter, of have a longer life battery.

    But it is still a laptop.

  • Chris Fanelli

    http://allmycircuitsrfunctiong...
    Asking Is The Laptop Dead? is like asking if the hammer is dead.  Yes, but what do you want me to use to hammer nails, an iPad? Just because a design has reached its natural end and “there’s nowhere to go from here” doesn’t mean it has lost its utility. You can name a thousand useful tools that no longer need any improvement but are very useful in day to day life.When was the last time the whisk needed to be re-designed? 

  • Joe Ellis

    Do you sincerely believe this supposed "polished peak of laptop design" translates to its certain death? That, because there's nothing left to take away, the platform will stagnate and die? If so then surely the myriad tablet and smartphone clones out there - with their even more minimal plastics, ports, and glass - are all doomed to the same slow and painful death, too, right? Same logic, same result, right? 

    Please. The laptop is not a "dead design." It is a proven design. In twenty years, it has morphed from a luggable suitcase to a manila envelope. It has leaped orders of magnitude in performance, achieved all-day battery life, and plummeted in cost by over 95%. And with the Ultrabook movement, it will adopt instant-on, touch-screen, gesture control, motion control, multi-day battery life, and month-long stand-by... All of which will become the norm on most every laptop model over time. The laptop will survive.

    The portable computing game is getting interesting for a variety of reasons far greater in scope and depth than a particular device's physical design. The arm-chair analysts are all lathered up for the architecture battle between Intel and ARM Holdings.They can't get enough of the Patent Wars between Apple and Samsung. Or the byzantine cross-license drama between Google and Microsoft. Or the self-destruction of RIM. Or the infamous "burning platform" of Nokia. On and on it goes... These stories at least deserve the ink and commentaries they've received thus far, as they're like to shape the computing landscape for the next decade or more.

  • atimoshenko

    The first thing to note that going into the future the main differentiator between computing devices will not be power (how long before we can have a supercomputer in every doorknob?), but the way we interact with them – how big the screen, how many screens, what other input methods, etc. The important observation is that interaction methods have an inherent tradeoff – the more powerful the interaction method, the less quickly accessible/portable/'glanceable' it is, and the more attention it requires us to shift to it from the world around us. This makes sense – if you want to engage, say, in full-scale non-linear video editing or CAD work you do not have attention to spare to anything else, and so you would not be doing it in a cafe. Quite different from reading an FC article, which is in turn different from checking where you are on a map.

    Because of this, the thing to ask, really, is whether we will have one (primary) computing device or many of them? A laptop, as it stands today, only makes sense in the world of one primary device – you always carry all of your computing with you. Because of its attempt at universality, it is very much a compromise solution – not as powerful (in terms of interaction) for serious work as a desktop, not as glanceable as a smartphone or tablet... but if you only have one device it's often good enough. If you have multiple devices, however, a laptop becomes less and less attractive – there is pretty much nothing a laptop can do that a combination of tablet + desktop cannot do better. Indeed a laptop does not even make much sense in combination with many other devices – iPad + MacBook Air? MacBook Air + iMac? Both combinations are more duplicative than they are complimentary.

    This, I think, is the reason why laptops are reaching the end of their line. Not because we cannot right now see how they can evolve further (the great thing about the future is its ability to surprise), but because they are compromise (hardware) solutions in a world increasingly not in need of compromises. Actually, this is also the reason why Microsoft's compromising, jack-of-all-trades, all-in-one Windows 8 direction will also prove to be the wrong choice to make (as will be any Cloud solutions which do not dramatically tailor their UX – broader than UI – to different hardware devices). A large number of (standalone but) transparently interacting/networking devices means greater specialisation of each device, not greater universality.

  • Tim Chambers

    [edit of my previous comment] A rather myopic perspective. I blogged on the wider topic a little over a year ago: "The four levels of computing power" - see http://j.mp/cQgWZT . Summarizing: (1) small: 3 cubic inches that fits in your pocket (2) medium: tolerable for "real work," e.g. netbook [and, now I'd add, tablet / eReader (iPad, NOOKcolor™, Kindle Fire, etc.)] (3) large: no compromises on performance (removable media (CD/DVD), luscious display for two side by side documents, satisfied by a full-size notebook + monitor. Finally, (4) network-enabled television - non-mobile by design, suitable platform for PlayOn.

  • Tim Chambers

    This post represents a rather myopic perspective. I blogged on the wider topic a little over a year ago: "The four levels of computing power" - see <http: cqgwzt="" j.mp="">. Summarizing: (1) small: 3 cubic inches that fits in your pocket (2) medium: tolerable for "real work," e.g. netbook [and, now I'd add, tablet / eReader (iPad, NOOKcolor™, Kindle Fire, etc.)] (3) large: no compromises on performance - removable media (CD/DVD), luscious display for two side by side documents, satisfied by a full-size notebook + monitor. Finally, (4) network-enabled television - non-mobile by design, suitable platform for PlayOn. -- Tim 1E4AF729D5CEFFD0</http:>

  • Richard Alexander

    What is the difference between the first PC and the latest PC, apart from power and capability? I own a 20 year-old computer that is essentially the same as the machine I built last year, with only details differing. Supposedly, the desktop is "dead," but no one expects them to disappear from vendor shelves for many years.

    I have an idea for new types of mobile devices that might replace the notebook, and technology is right about where it needs to be for them to be feasible. I like playing with them, in my head. I have no doubt that someone is going to build them, some day. That isn't unusual for me; I've seen many devices, especially in the last few years, that are implementations that I sketched as a boy.

  • Brian Reyes

    Hah, I actually disagree. I think moving into the sub 3 pound form factor changes how you use your laptop.  They way I explain it to people, laptops are like binders...you carry them under your arm, or with two hands, you set it on a table.  Ultrabooks (Samsung series 9, MacBook Air) are more akin to a notepad.  I use my superlight laptop more than my tablet because it's so fast (SSDs anyone?) and it's a real, full-fledged computer.  It doesn't heat my lap and I can carry it with two fingers.  I think this weight is a *critical evolution* and can change how we use laptops.  If they revert back to the old failed tablet PC form-factor but with now a 2.5 pound computer AND a slick interface like windows 8 that supports the touchscreen mode, you have a kick-ass device.  Tablets are going to continue to be popular and useful, since they cost $200-$500; ultrabooks are $1000.  But as price drops and tech improves, the light-weight laptop is a winner.