Notebooks are the Past, Tablets are the Future

by Ben Bajarin   |   April 27th, 2012

This may be one of the more controversial columns I have written in sometime, although my goal is not to be controversial but to spur thought- so please hear me out. It is no secret that I am very bullish on the tablet form factor.

I have written extensively about them since the launch of the first iPad about my beliefs in this product’s role in the future of computing. But there are still many in the industry who have long watched, predicted, and benefited from the evolution of the desktop computer to the notebook and its success world wide that disagree with the more bullish thinking about tablets replacing laptops eventually.

At analyst meetings I attend and during many conversations with industry folk, I constantly hear a theme of tablets turning into notebooks. In essence there is a belief that the tablet form factor will evolve in form and function to look more like a notebook rather than less. This device is in essence the convergence of a notebook with a tablet. There is a good chance that with Windows 8 this form factor will appeal to a segment of the market. Even if that happens, and because of Windows 8, I believe that it is inevitable that all major software going forward will be re-imagined for touch interfaces first and foremost.

Notebooks of Old Will Become Relics

Because of the incredible growth of the iPad and smartphones over recent years, nearly all software developers have turned their eyes to touch. I have been one of the foremost proponents of touch computing and I firmly believe it is the foundation of our computing future. With that reality in mind, it seems clear to me clear that the software industry has been reborn around touch computing–R.I.P Computer-Aided Display Control (aka Mouse).

It is because of this new computing paradigm built from the ground up around touch that when I see notebooks I feel like I am looking at the past. Yet when I see how kids, elderly, non-techies, first time computer users in emerging markets, and more, all use the iPad, I am convinced I am looking at the future.

If you read my column on the new era of personal computing, I made the statement that notebooks are not actually mobile computers but are really portable desktops with compromises made on behalf of portability. In fact it was fascinating to hear Apple’s COO Peter Oppenheimer refer to the Mac business as desktops and portables–that’s my kind of industry terminology! Many desktop use cases are the same on notebooks. The only difference between the two is that one is portable and one is not. The iPad is however much more of a personal mobile computer than a notebook ever was or will be and the drastic change in use cases between the iPad and notebooks is significant.

I don’t know anyone who owns an iPad who has stopped using their notebook or desktop entirely. Sometimes there are times when you want a larger screen and a keyboard to accomplish some tasks. This is the best argument for the hybrid tablet / notebook computer. However, acknowledging that for some tasks a larger screen and keyboard are convenient, there is another scenario I can see playing out that may make the notebook form factor irrelevant for many consumers.

The Desktops New Role

Believe it or not, I see desktops making a comeback due to a role change. There is an interesting trend emerging around desktops. Consumer all-in-one Desktops (Like the iMac) are being designed to be showcased prominently in the house rather than stuck in the den or office. These computers will be very elegant, very powerful, and very affordable. So rather than try to converge a notebook and a tablet, I think a better solution is to pair a desktop all-in-one with a tablet. This would especially be interesting in consumer markets.

In this solution, when you want a big screen, keyboard, etc., you get it in a no compromise package with more processing power, graphics, memory, and storage than you would ever get in a converged tablet / notebook or a laptop. Then when you want a mobile computer you get a no compromise mobile computer with a tablet. I think this makes a lot of sense, perhaps even more than a converged notebook / tablet for the mass market.

Without fully testing one of these converged notebook / tablet devices it is hard to say this with absolute confidence but my fear with this converged form factor is that it will be a compromised notebook and a compromised tablet. Even though it is trying to be the best of both worlds, my fear is that it fails at both, or at the very least is heavily compromised on both fronts. Plus, if you buy my logic that a notebook is just a portable desktop, then the notebook becomes irrelevant in a desktop / tablet solution.

Of course the cloud and specifically the relationship between a desktop and a tablet would need to evolve quite a bit more than it is today for this to work. That is why I refer to it as a solution because it would need to have solution based thinking for this particular scenario to be done right.

This even works in a family setting where each person of the house has their own tablet screen and the desktop remains the communal screen for more “heavy lifting.” Each person’s cloud would have to work harmoniously on a personal level and also at a family level.

I have in fact been trying this experiment for myself at my house. Using a desktop as my primary big screen computer and a tablet for all my other mobile use cases. It is surprisingly sufficient already even without being built with this specific use case in mind.

Now realistically the notebook form factor will always exist for a certain segment. This model may not work for business users or mobile professionals. But I am beginning to wonder whether this desktop paired with a tablet solution may be a very attractive proposition for the mass consumer market. In this scenario everyone in the home has their own personal tablet rather than everyone having their own personal notebook. This scenario is not tomorrow, next year, or even a few years away but I would not be shocked if this solution gains traction at some point in time in the future.

This topic again is meant more of a thought exercise around a scenario that I could see playing out. Rarely am I struck with such a feeling that when I look at the excitement from many vendors around notebooks that I am sensing they are investing in the past, not in the future. But that is exactly the feeling I am having of late.

Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research. He is a husband, father, gadget enthusiast, trend spotter, early adopter and hobby farmer. Full Bio
  • mhikl

    You’ve helped me make up my mind, Ben. I have delayed any new computer product for too long and I had decided that the MBA would be my next purchase. I would leave off the iPad until next year, next iteration. I thought I was just not to the point, yet, that I would get that much use out of an iPad.

    Instead I will get the iPad soon and continue to use my ageing MB as the need arises. If all works out and I use my iPad as my major device for search, study and writing, then I could just forgo the cost of another computer. I am well into my fifth year with my old MB so it owes me nothing, ignoring the aggravation of randomly skipping down the page—we’ve had a love/hate relationship from the beginning.

    I agree that there may be times that “a larger screen and keyboard to accomplish some tasks” may be more desirable, but I find my DT even better for such task, though it is harder to tote. I figured this one out after your challenges to my biases; I got used to a laptop on my knee, even with my eye on the computer across the room, so, I can get used to the iPad even knowing my ageing laptop is parked but still ready should the need arise.

    Of course, if I still find there are times I really need the bigger screen, next years MBA will surely be an improvement over this years release, but then again, the iMac is getting old and a new one may be the bigger horse costing fewer oats.

    It’s an endless debate, but iPad next it shall be!

    • benbajarin

      Your observations are in line with many I think. We have been getting feedback from consumers that they have been doing the same, delaying the purchase of a new laptop and instead considering an iPad or waiting until next year to decide on a new laptop.

      The point that I think is very interesting the dwell on is the role the notebook has played as a portable desktop with compromises made in favor of mobility. In a desktop / tablet combo I believe you get a truly mobile computer paired with a no compromise performance computer and it represents a powerful computing whole.

      Of course since the iMac is roughly the price of a MBA but either prices could come down, or the most disruptive thing I could Apple could do is sell a combination iMac with an iPad at a discount if you buy the two together.

      • mhikl

        From another mouth a thought is confirmed. Sometimes one (me) needs one’s inner “know” confirmed by another in the know. iPad it shall be.
        Wife says I can now finally concentrate on new window structures for family & dining rooms. That is fourteen months contemplation by my reckon, now that the iPad decision has been put to rest.

    • dfbddfhb

      get a desktop and a tablet! best setup

      • mhikl

        Found from Discus you had commented, kinda late, dfbddfhb. However, just to set the story straight, I did buy my iPad, two years ago, and a desktop (the mini) a year ago, and next year I shall sell the iPad and buy an MBP (my MB died). I do not like the iPad at all. My iPod touch does the trick, really quite well. I never liked writing on the iPad and as I am a yapper and no one’s interested in what I have to say :) oh well, the MBP will set me free.
        Namaste and care,
        mhikl

  • shockme

    I tend to agree with this trend in general. My own usage varies a bit though. I’ve long been using my 13″ MacBook Pro Notebook as a desktop replacement. I also own an iPhone 4S and the new iPad. I like the idea that I can pick it all up and put it in a single bag.

    When I next purchase a notebook it will likely be accompanied by an external full-sized keyboard, external thunderbolt monitor, external thunderbolt drives (including perhaps an external optical drive for legacy files and DVDs, a magic trackpad, a stylus with digitizer pad and a mouse (all of them as wireless as possible).

    But most of my computing time will be spent on the iPad away from tables and desks. The iPad is just so much more convenient for 98% of what I do at home. I do picture a day though when the multi-touch surface grows and is integrated into the desktop experience along with other sensors like microphone for Siri hand tracking like Kinect and maybe even eye tracking. And we can’t forget all the fun we will have with 3 meter interfaces for our TVs.

  • http://kaizenity.blogspot.com/ FalKirk

    1) Touch is the future. (It’s really the present, but I don’t want to argue that point now.) Touch removes a layer of abstraction. It’s inherently more intuitive. There are a few tasks that are better suited to the exactness of a mouse or stylus but for 90% – perhaps even for 99% – of all tasks that are done on a computer, touch is the better solution.

    2) Vertical screens don’t want to be touched. The human arm, when held in an unsupported horizontal position, rapidly becomes fatigued and painful. This is known as “Gorilla Arm”. For this reason, while touch screens may act as a notebook screen in a pinch, they will never be the primary notebook interface of choice.

    3) A keyboard is not as important as we think. I am a touch typist. I love my physical keyboard. But do you remember, just a few years ago, when kids typed texts on the numeric keypads on their phones? They had to push the “1″ once to produce an “a”, twice to produce a “b”, three times to produce a “c”, and so on. Mind numbingly counterintuitive and painstakingly slow. Yet I watched teenagers who could type faster on the numeric keypads of their phones than I could type on the keyboard of my notebook. People adapt. Keyboards are nice…but let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that they are essential. If a kid can type on a numeric keypad, then a kid can learn to type just as well on a virtual keyboard as I can type on a physical keyboard.

    4) A touch interface and a pixel interface are inherently incompatible.

    Microsoft spent the past 12 years teaching us that a pixel specific input device was not the appropriate way to interface with a tablet. Apple spent the last two years teaching us that touch was the best way to interface with a tablet. We’re awfully slow learners. We still seem unable to grasp the lessons that the Microsoft and Apple have been so patiently trying to teach us.

    When you interface with a computer using a mouse or a stylus you are going pixel by pixel. When you interface with a computer using your finger (which might be a radically different size than my finger) you are touching an amorphous blog of pixels. A thin scroll bar running down the right side of a screen works well on a pixel based interface. It’s a disaster on a touch based interface. On a touch device, we “swipe” down the whole screen until we “bounce” off the bottom. Pixel is tiny and discrete. Touch is broad and rambunctious. Pixel and touch require entirely different operating systems. They are inherently incompatible.

    Let me say that again: A touch interface and a pixel interface are inherently incompatible.

    Conclusion: I think that five trends that will emerge:

    A) More and more computer owners will move to touch and then more and more computer owners will switch to only using touch devices. If touch is easier to learn and easier to use (and it is) and you don’t need the functionality of a desktop machine, and touch drives both your phone and your tablet, then why even bother to learn a mouse driven input device at all?

    B) Those who still have a need to use their mouse driven machines will use them for what they have to and they will use their touch devices for everything else. This does not bode well for future sales of notebooks and desktops. Powerful desktop and notbook devices will co-exist with touch devices but they will be used less and less and they will only be replaced, if at all, through attrition.

    C) Add on keyboards will become popular for 5% to 10% of all touch users and then their use will drop and eventually plateau at 1% or 2% as older users learn that they can get by without them and newer users will never learn that they ever needed them in the first place.

    D) Devices that run dual operating systems will play the same role that all dual operating system devices have historically played, which is to say almost none at all. Devices that run dual operating systems can be very, very useful, but people use them because they HAVE to. No one uses them because they WANT to or because they LIKE it. Look for Windows 8 tablets to make an initial splash and then slowly, slowly sink beneath the waves.

    E) Any attempt to merge the touch OS with the pixel specific OS will fail. It will not be the best of both worlds, it will be the worst of all worlds. It will not be the Swiss Army Knife of computing, it will be the Spork of computing. Let me put it this way – any device maker who puts significant time, energy and resources into creating such an interface is well and truly sporked.

    • benbajarin

      There is a lot to unpack with your excellent comment.

      First off by this statement:

      “A touch interface and a pixel interface are inherently incompatible.”

      You briefly allude to it later in your comment but with this statement in particular are you making a reference to Win 8 and / or the idea of an iOS + OSX merge for laptops and desktops?

      Second. I agree with your observation about kids and keyboards. I actually can type surprisingly fast on the iPad. What I don’t like is how much screen real estate I lose when the virtual keyboard pops up but that may be a quirk of mine rather than the feelings of the mass market. I am simply use to staring at a larger screen when I type. I am actually already teaching my kids to type on the iPad rather than a physical keyboard. It also works cause its smaller but regardless I am having them invest in virtual.

      Third. I have been using a notebook / tablet convertible with my Win 8 Consumer Preview and what I have found is that although I don’t use touch as a primary input or interface mechanism, I do tend to use it for some things like swiping, moving a page up or down, selecting an app, etc. In essence in some situations it is faster to touch or swipe then use a mouse. For some reason I have never embraced this with toucpads on my MBA even though it supports it, but I have started touching the screen for some things with my Win 8 consumer preview. Do you think its possible that touch adds convenience to a notebook or desktop form factor rather than makes it the primary mechanism for navigation?

      Lastly, again I just wanted to say that was an excellent comment and has added valuable insight to my thinking on this topic. Thanks again.

      • http://kaizenity.blogspot.com/ FalKirk

        Thank you for the kind words. Much appreciated. Although I try to say it as often as remember to, I hope that you know how much I admire your work. I always look forward to reading your articles with the anticipation that I will learn something. On today’s internet, that is both a rare thing and a great thing. Thanks.

      • http://kaizenity.blogspot.com/ FalKirk

        “A touch interface and a pixel interface are inherently incompatible.”-FalKirk

        “You briefly allude to it later in your comment but with this statement in particular are you making a reference to Win 8 and / or the idea of an iOS + OSX merge for laptops and desktops?”

        As I discussed in my original post, the cursor on a mouse (or touchpad) affects 1 pixel at a time, while the human finger touches an indiscreet blob of pixels. But it’s not enough to just make everything bigger in order to compensate for the size of the finger – the entire interface needs to be re-imagined and re-implemented. For example, the menus options that run across the tops of our notebooks would have to be made so large as to blot out most of the usable screen of a tablet.

        Further, the finger actually touches the thing you want to affect. The iPad deludes its users into thinking that they are actually touching and moving the objects on screen. Very visceral. Very intuitive.

        Both the mouse and the keypad are abstractions. You put your finger on the mouse or keypad and it creates/moves a cursor on the screen. You look at the screen, not at your hand as it moves the mouse/keypad. You learn to associate the movements of the hand with the movements of the cursor, but they are not the same – not natural, intuitive, innate.

        When you switch from the fingers-on-the-screen to the fingers-on-the-mouse/keypad your are switching mental models. The changeover is inherently jarring, disorienting. The mind quickly adjusts, but not if one keeps moving back and forth between the two interfaces.

        Many have suggested that iOS and OS X are going to merge. Apple has made it extremely clear that this is not going to happen. They think that touch input interfaces and the pixel input interfaces cannot be merged. They are doing everything in their power to make OS X FEEL like iOS but they are not doing anything to make OS X MIMIC iOS.

        Apple’s goal is to have iOS users – the vast majority of their user base – feel at home when they use OS X. Apple wants all the things that can be the same be the same (calendars, reminders, notes, mail, etc) and all the things that can’t be the same work in a similar, complimentary fashion (scrolling with the touchpad, double-tapping on a touchpad, etc.).

        There is also no merger of touch input and pixel input in Microsoft’s upcoming offerings.

        - Windows RT is touch interface only.

        - Windows 8 has two discrete interfaces – one touch input, one pixel input.

        - Windows 8 on the desktop upgrades Windows 7′s pixel specific input interface and adds a totally unnecessary and confusing sheen of touch. Once you get past the initial touch screen, you’re returned to the pixel input user interface. (Microsoft is doing this because they are desperate to have the world view Windows 8 as one operating systems when it clearly is two different – application incompatible – operating systems.)

        A merger of the two interfaces is not happening because a merger of the two interfaces is counter-productive.

        What about the idea that it is better to have TWO interfaces on a computer instead of only one?

        Clearly, touch works best with tablets and pixel works best with desktops. Why then would you ever want touch input on a desktop or pixel input on a tablet? Availability.

        Avail-ability is sometimes the greatest ability of all. No computer ability matters unless it is available. If you only have a tablet with you and you need to access a pixel specific program, then having access to that program is essential. Otherwise, there is little reason to use pixel input on a tablet.

        What about the idea that your tablet can be used as a tablet when you’re on the move and used as a desktop device by plugging in a mouse and a keyboard when you’re stationary? This is nonsensical.

        As we’ve discussed, above, the touch input interface is superior to that of the pixel input interface in most every way. This is obscured by the fact that people are used to – and have grown attached to – pixel input operating systems. If touch input and pixel input devices had been introduced at the same time, very few of us would have voluntarily chosen the pixel input device. There will be continued resistance from the old guard but very soon the majority of computer users will gravitate toward touch input devices.

        I am so very sorry that this response is so very long. I wish I had a pithy way to capture these thoughts. The best I can come up with this summary:

        - Touch input is inherently superior

        - Vertical screens do not like to be touched

        - This necessitates two very different operating systems

        - The touch input and the pixel input operating systems are inherently incompatible

        - The touch operating system will eventually satisfy 90% to 95% of our computing needs

        Conclusion: The sad thing is, after all those words, I’m not even sure if I’ve adequately answered your question. I hope that I’ve at least made a start.

  • CooperDriver

    My family is a living example of your new paradigm. We use a 2011 Mac mini with an account for each family member with an external 2TB drive for additional storage & time machine back-up connected to a 32″ Vizio monitor (also used as HDTV w/ Cable on alternate input). Family members have iPhones & iPads of the last 2 generations and all are connnected / synced through iCloud (though that is not as flexible as we’d like). Families with higher processing needs may use an iMac or a Mac Pro but we like the extremely small footprint of the Mini combined with the low cost of the large 1080p monitor. The Mini, Hard drives, and router sit hidden and all anyone sees (if they look hard enough) is the wireless keyboard, mouse, and trackpad tucked away on a shelf when they’re not in use.

    Just about everyone who visits comments on the elegance of the solution and wonders “Where is the computer?”

  • Not1lost

    Like I have said many times; I don’t like laptops. I have had a stack of them only because I needed one for travel. I have never really liked the design at all it seems cumbersome to me. Also as I have said before; since buying my iPad2 I haven’t even turned my laptop on, that was about six months ago… The iPad really serves all my needs for mobile computing when I am traveling and is actually very enjoyable to use. Many people I know are saying the same things and much of the things I read are the same story. Also as the iPad gets more powerful and capable this trend will grow. Other tablets may be all right but they fall way short of the capabilities and beauty of the iPad, I’m sure they will improve as they learn from Apple :-D. My wife completely done away with her computer and laptop, sold them both since getting an iPad2. That is all she uses now and I know of several others who are doing the same thing; the iPad IS their computer. She and I both bought an Apple Bluetooth Keyboards for them and use it when we need to do a lot of typing. Actually I liked the Apple keyboard so much better than anything else I have used it is all I use now. I am typing this on it right now with the Dell PC. This article really makes a lot of sense to me.

    IMO There is no way a laptop is ever going to replace a serious desktop computer for real computer work. That is why they build workstations like the Mac Pro and the iMac is real close in many ways. With everything in the world going to computer control the need for more and more engineers with grow as will the demands of their work with will require more and more powerful workstations. I do regret the authors choice of words in the title “kill” is a little strong right now “Greatly Reduce” would be better, Heck it’s already doing that by leaps and bounds. If you look into the future though the generation that is coming up now is adapting to a tablet for computing needs much more than we did. For instance, when I try to type on my iPad keyboard it is extremely hard to be very fast although I have seen some younger people type on them with amazing proficiency because that is what they are used to. I bought an Apple bluetooth keyboard for mine to type on (using it now) because I just didnt want to take the time to learn it, I am used to a keyboard. There again if you take one of these kids that has grown up using a on screen keyboard and try to give them a keyboard or attach one to their tablet they would say “get that clunky thing outa here!”:eek: it’s in my way and a waist of space!”. as we see technology greatly increase and tablets getting much more powerful and versatile and even “Bigger” yes much bigger like a 17″ diagonal with a mouse type pad, I could easily see them doing everything a laptop can do in a handier package without a clunky keyboard. It is hard for us to see that right now just like at one time it would have been hard for me to imagine everyone carrying around a phone in their pocket. Just my thoughts. :)