The rise and rise of the laptop


10 Dec 2009

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Bill Gates, co-founder and chairman of Microsoft, once said: “We are not even close to finishing the basic dream of what the PC can be.” This dream is still being realised, and at the forefront is mobile computing in the form of the ever-evolving laptop.

Once seen as the reserve of the road warrior and a mobile version of the work station, the laptop – helped along by Moore’s Law of shrinking electronic devices and accelerating speed – is part of our lives and is diverging in a few interesting directions.

The first one

It is hard to believe that while the first commercially available "portable computer", the IBM 5100, came on the scene in 1975, more than a decade later in 1986 a successor known as the IBM PC Convertible was still well out of the price range of most consumers at $3,500.

This all changed in the Nineties when manufacturers, including Dell, Apple, Gateway, Sony and Toshiba, joined the laptop revolution and the PC in every home was on its way to being replaced by the laptop.

However, in the past two years, the laptop has undergone more changes than ever before. A few pivotal transformations have segmented the laptop into three distinct trends: ultra-lightweight, touchscreen and the netbook.

Following on from the phenomenal success of the iPod, Apple continued on its path of innovation and aesthetically pleasing high-tech gadgets when co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs announced a world first in January 2008: the MacBook Air, the thinnest laptop ever.

Opinions were varied over its price point, but one thing was certain: Apple had raised the bar of how mobile a powerful laptop could really be.

Progress

Soon afterwards, more cost-effective and ultra-lightweight laptops began to appear on the market, but the key focus here seems to have been on luxury and visual appeal.

Dell’s new Adamo XPS, announced in November 2009, pushes the envelope further: at 9.99-mm thick, it is thinner than the MacBook Air (although 4mm at its thinnest, the main body of the Air is around the 19.3mm mark).

How slimline can laptops go? With processor technology from chip makers such as Intel, it won’t be long before ultra-thin is the norm, and at mainstream price points.

“With an ultra-thin laptop powered by Intel’s ultra-low voltage processors, consumers experience a unique balance of performance and power consumption that is incomparable in the market today – all in a slim, sleek package," explains Mooly Eden, vice-president and general manager of the Mobile Platforms Group at Intel.

While power users are benefiting from this kind of technology, the real push is towards the netbook – small, portable and affordable.

“The mini-notebook is a great tool for casual and entry-level computing, especially among younger users who are obsessed with social- networking sites such as Facebook," says Lillian Tay, principal research analyst at Gartner.

Relatively new

It is interesting to note that while the netbook in its current incarnation only came on the market in 2007 with the arrival of the ASUS Eee PC, which was the first mass-produced netbook, sales are rising incrementally.

Analyst firm DisplaySearch published a study in July 2009 that predicted netbook shipments in 2009 will account for 20pc of the overall laptop market, while sales of regular laptops will stagnate year-on-year.

With less storage, less computing power and smaller screens than the standard laptop, what is the appeal of the netbook?

“Due to their small size and low price, PC vendors have begun to find some traction for mini-notebooks in the transportation, logistics, repair and servicing, manufacturing, and healthcare markets," explains Tracy Tsai, senior research analyst at Gartner.

Even the success of the smart phone as a computer in the palm of your hand cannot overtake the appeal.

“A further attraction is the ability for users to create or run custom applications quickly and inexpensively because of standard PC operating systems, unlike handheld devices."

The boost of the downturn

Both the consumer and business user still require full-sized screens and desktop replacements, however. The economic downturn of 2008 and 2009 could go part-way towards explaining their success, or so thinks Reuben Tan, senior manager of Asia/Pacific personal systems research at IDC, when looking to Asia.

“Mini-notes [netbooks] are forecast to continue to be a significant portion of the market. However, as display sizes of these devices have quickly moved from 7.0-inch to 8.9-inch to 10.1-inch, and now with the emergence of 11.6-inch and 12.0-inch mini-note products, it is clear that buyers want a lightweight device, but they also want a bigger display,” says John F Jacobs, director of notebook market research at DisplaySearch and author of the company’s Quarterly Notebook PC Shipment and Forecast Report.

Convergence was a buzzword for 2008, but it is truly shaping up in 2009, especially as handset manufacturers look beyond the smart phone to the always-on netbook as Nokia has done with the Booklet 3G.

Eager to differentiate itself from the standard netbook, the aptly named Booklet 3G pushes the always-on built-in 3G internet connectivity of a handset along with one of the main attractions of the mobile phone: good battery life. The booklet runs on battery power alone for 12 hours.

Google Android OS arrives

Added to this, the arrival of the Google Android operating system for netbooks next year, which already runs on smart phones including the HTC Hero, will further merge the phone and computing platform.

While the netbook has averaged out with a 10.1-inch screen that fulfils the social-media requirements of the masses, and the ultra-thin camp can serve up screen sizes between 13 and 15 inches, some manufacturers such as HP are going in the direction of is touch.

Touchscreen is becoming standard for the mobile handset, but will HP’s TouchSmart TX2Z or Dell’s Latitude XT2 become an industry standard or simply a niche product? Windows 7 could be the deciding factor.

By Marie Boran

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