Notebooks are the Past, Tablets are the Future

on April 27, 2012
Reading Time: 4 minutes

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.