Thoughts on the Next Ten Years of Mobile Computing

In my last two columns, I wrote about the future of mobile computing and stated that I believe that by the end of the next decade, the computer of today morphs into mixed reality glasses, and they become the computer of choice for the masses. These products could cause the mobile computer we use today to fade into the background, and while laptops and foldable computers may still be used for heavy-duty computing tasks, I surmised that mixed reality glasses could at the very least replace our smartphones of today. If they have enough power to handle most personal computing tasks, they could end up being the only computer many people use in the future.

Predicting ten years out is always dangerous, but I have a history of forecasting major industry inflection points. I wrote about desktop publishing two years before anybody even knew what that meant. I wrote about major advances in portable computing five years before we saw the first true clamshell hit the market. I also wrote about pocket computing four years before Palm introduced the Palm Pilot and shared a conceptual idea about what became the smartphone six years before we saw the first ones in 1998.

While I believe mixed reality glasses will be at the heart of portable computing in 10 years, a couple of readers asked me what I thought would be the next major step in mobile in the next decade. To answer this question, I wanted to give you a historical background on mobile and put my answer in the context of this history.

I began covering the PC industry in 1981 and was one of the first professional analysts to study and chronicle the PC market. Over 38 years, the PC industry has produced close to $3 trillion in revenue and created a lot of wealth and jobs for people who create PCs, PC software, and services that support them.

At its height, the PC industry sold close to 380 million PCs a year. The demand for PCs has decreased in the last ten years, but PC makers still sell about 270 million PC’s and laptops each year worldwide. Today, the majority of personal computers sold are laptops and notebooks. While desktop computers are still made, they represent only about 15% of all PC’s shipped today. The real PC workhorses that fuel a much more mobile business lifestyle are notebooks and laptops that drive today’s productivity, education, entertainment, and social media applications.

I have watched the evolution of the laptop very closely over these 38 years. In fact, I was at CEBIT in 1985 when Toshiba introduced the first-ever clamshell laptop, a design that the PC Industry embraced and has popularized for over three decades. That same year I began to work with IBM on their first clamshell design that eventually became their ThinkPad line of laptops.

What is ironic about the clamshell design is that until 2012, there was very little innovation in terms of design changes to the clamshell form factor. The first break with traditional clamshells came in 2012 with the introduction of what Intel called “2 in 1’s.” These were fundamentally a tablet with a detachable keyboard. Some called them “hybrids.”

Being able to break the stronghold of the clamshell design was partly due to Microsoft’s newest OS that added a pen and touch support and other features that came out to support their first Surface hybrids in this same year. One could argue that Apple forced this design revolution with the introduction of the iPad in 2010, which also included a detachable keyboard and a touch UI, but its focus was on being a tablet, not a laptop replacement like the 2 in 1’s were from the beginning.

Since the 2 in 1’s emerged, there has been a lot of experimentation in the area of portable computing. We have seen dozens of hybrids and 2 in 1’s in many form factors and designs. Laptops have also become thinner and lighter. However, these types of mobile computers have not really caught on. They represent no more 10-15% of all laptops and notebooks sold today.

If you take a historical look at the trends in portable computers, from 1985 to 2012 would be called the clamshell era. From 2012-2020, it could be seen as the hybrid era. Now, as we are about to enter a new decade, we are about to enter a new era of mobile computing as the advances in technology components are accelerating. Over the next decade, mobile computer makers will have a host of new technologies to work with, from new battery chemistry that could power a laptop for a week, to new low voltage semiconductors that have enough power to deliver 3D holographic images to mobile screens. The most promising technology to impact this next decade will come with the perfecting of foldable screens that could be used in laptops as well as smartphones.

An early example of a foldable laptop was introduced by Lenovo in May at their customer, even in Orlando, Florida. It sports a 13 “screen that folds in half. Lenovo showed this to me recently, and I got to test it out, and while it is still a prototype, it is well designed, and they solved one of the biggest problems with any foldable devices. They have developed patented hinges that move with the fold and make it possible for the screen seems to stay in place no matter how many times you fold it during its life. The quality of this device is excellent since it was designed by Lenovo’s Yamoto team that created the ThinkPad line of laptops. There is no date for its release yet, and most other laptop vendors are working on similar models that could debut at CES in January.

I think the next decade itself will introduce the era of foldable computers and smartphones, and folding screens will drive the most innovation in portable computing designs. We will have innovation in processors, storage, and battery technology, too, but I believe the introduction of folding screens will drive the biggest change in mobile design and form factors, and in 2030, a new era of mixed reality glasses will drive that next decade of mobile innovation.

Published by

Tim Bajarin

Tim Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981 and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *