Preparing for a Future of Laptops

Alan Reiter, President, Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing | 10/11/2011 | 12 comments

Alan Reiter
For the first time since I bought my first and only Apple computer, an Apple II in 1981, I'm thinking about buying an Apple laptop. I probably would prefer a Windows 7 laptop. I'm thinking about the future of laptops, and IT directors should, too.

As science fiction writer William Gibson is supposed to have said, "The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed." The future -- at least one version of it -- is Apple's MacBook Air, which is notable for what it doesn't have. It doesn't have a physical hard disk, DVD drive, many ports, or much weight. It also doesn't have a low price; it costs from $999 to $1,599. That's expensive for a mainstream laptop, which the Air isn't.

A significant part of the expense is that the Air uses only solid state memory -- 64GB, 128GB, or 256GB. That's a major reason it's fast. It wakes up from sleep in a few seconds, and opening applications is often faster than when using a traditional hard disk. Also, it's one of the lightest laptops available: 2.38 pounds for the 11.6-inch screen, and 2.96 pounds for the 13-inch screen. The light weight is the main reason I'm considering the Air, along with its pretty good performance.

The Air points to the future because of its solid state memory and light weight. The battery life of up to five hours for the 11.6-inch models and up to seven hours is good. Many other laptops offer as good or better battery life, but they're typically heavier or poorer performing netbooks.

The Air's design is sexy because it's oh-so-shiny aluminum and it's really thin, a maximum of 0.68 inches. That's nice, but it's also a problem for me. Because it's so thin, the 11.6-inch Air doesn't include an SD card slot, although the 13-inch does. Also, although the Air's keyboard is about a wide as a mainstream laptop, the key travel is shallow. That's a major disadvantage for me because I'm really picky about keyboards, and when I push down on a key, I want to feel it travel about 3.5mm, like the best keyboards.

So one reason I'm looking forward to the new generation of non-Apple laptops is, I hope, better keyboards. Unfortunately, some Apple competitors might be infected with the Air's design anorexia. Intel is spending hundreds of millions of dollars promoting its Ultrabook concept to manufacturers, offering incentives to those who use its chipsets and follow its requirements. One requirement is that laptops may not be thicker than 0.8 inches.

Aaaarrgghh! When I'm traipsing through miles of convention exhibits and running down airport corridors to catch a plane, I don't think "if only my laptop was thinner." I think, "if only my laptop was lighter!"

A slightly thicker -- but not heavier -- laptop would allow for better key travel as well as additional useful features. Those features could include an SD card slot and an Ethernet port. Apple soaks you for $29 for a USB Ethernet adapter. Hey Apple, WiFi isn't everywhere, and Ethernet is usually faster!

Also, laptop manufacturers could use cases that aren't aluminum, but are strong and light, and not as expensive as the Air's to reduce the retail price. Speaking of cost, although Intel is pushing its chipsets for Ultrabooks, why couldn't Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. offer microprocessors that perform well, but cost less, such as its upcoming Trinity line?

I want a lightweight Windows 8 laptop that's fast, is lightweight, and has solid-state storage, a great keyboard, an SD card slot, an Ethernet port, and excellent performance that costs the same or less than the Air. A few of these are just being introduced, but more are on the way. For example, Dell Inc. might introduce such a laptop at the Consumer Electronics Show in January.

Not every employee will want this sort of laptop. Some might need 1TB drives and the absolute fastest microprocessors. But many employees -- running through airports -- will lust after lighter machines with good or good enough capabilities. IT departments need to take a close look at the advantages for employees who will be asking for them.

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Alan Reiter   Preparing for a Future of Laptops   10/18/2011 12:04:43 AM
Re: Offloading the data and processing to internal cloud
Hi Jonathan Weisglass,

Yes, some organizations are going more towards cloud computing. It's one of the reasons Google has been pushing its Chromebooks, although there doesn't seem to be too much uptake on those, even at corporations.

Web services via browsers can be quite valuable and full featured, but sometimes there's nothing like a local application for superior capabilities. Also, unless there's a wired or wireless connection (such as with Chromebooks), the utility of programs could be limited. Granted, new data could be stored on the laptop, but that's a security threat for the most security-conscious organizations.

Still, for corporations that use mostly Web-based applications, laptops like the MacBook Air and ultrabooks -- with fast, but less, storage than with traditional hard disk drives --could be a good solution for workers who want excellent portability and don't need the absolute best performance.
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Alan Reiter   Preparing for a Future of Laptops   10/17/2011 11:56:31 PM
Re: But...
Hi Pedro Gonzales,

Some IT departments will carry a variety of laptops and different configurations. However, many companies do not offer a variety of laptops and, instead, standardize on only a few devices and configurations.
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Jonathan Weisglass   Preparing for a Future of Laptops   10/17/2011 10:11:36 PM
Offloading the data and processing to internal cloud
I'm witnessing a major push by organizations to get almost all corporate data off the laptop itself and keeping it on the organization's own internal cloud, accessible via a web browser, as a means of first and foremost keeping data leakage to an absolute minimum, and to keep laptop spec requirements low. This will have the positive effect of giving laptop manufacturers more incentive and ability to continue pushing the envelope with regard to portability. I agree that this must not be done at the expense of ergonomics, such as keyboard feel. Also agree that Lenovo ThinkPads are great machines, with great keyboards.
Pedro Gonzales   Preparing for a Future of Laptops   10/13/2011 2:36:33 PM
Re: But...
I think as you indicated it is there are various variables to consider before acquiring a laptop,you prefer lightweight and with different ports available.  In case of laptop, IT departments should have prepare different criteria based on their employeer desired on what type of laptop they will like to have. Based on an individual and their needs, the type of hardware they need differs.  that is why it is important to know such information in advance before acquiring such tools,hopefully with advancements in technology we will have lightweight powerfull computer in the future.
Alan Reiter   Preparing for a Future of Laptops   10/12/2011 12:13:30 PM
Re: Preparing for a Future of Laptops
Hi Henrisha,

I agree that if these new laptops can't do what you want, don't buy them. However, the MacBook Air and other similar laptops that will be released this year can fulfill the needs of many (but not all) users.

If you need more internal storage than 128GB or 256GB, the best microprocessor performance, superior graphics processing or a screen that's 14 inches or more, these laptops aren't for you. There are plenty of other laptops with better performance that cost the same or less than these $1,000+ machines.

People who use a laptop as their main computer are less likely to want these newer laptops...this year. However, many people would love a lighter weight laptop that turns on quickly. And users could plug in peripherals such as an external hard disk drive and a keyboard, while also being able to take the laptop with them when they need portability.

Also, I'm sure we'll see better performance from these types of laptops -- with solid state drives -- over the next several years.
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Henrisha   Preparing for a Future of Laptops   10/12/2011 7:08:33 AM
Re: Preparing for a Future of Laptops
The MacBook Air can contribute to the future of laptops in the sense that manufacturers can use what it doesn't have to come up with better and more functional laptops. I say "more functional" because while I appreciate the thinness and lightness of the Air, it just gave up way too many key components and features that it feels like a laptop that's not really done. When choosing a laptop, I always think ahead and see if it's something that can do everything my desktop computer can--and if not everything, then it better come close because what's the point of having a laptop where you can't get most of what you need to do done?
Alan Reiter   Preparing for a Future of Laptops   10/11/2011 10:04:35 PM
Re: Alternatives are Possible, but Profitable ?
Hi Technocrat,

Laptops are still a big business, and supplanting desktops as the "real" computer for many. Despite the inane view that we're in a post-PC age, most people still get real work done with physical keyboards, not with the hideously contorted text entry monstrosities known as on-screen keyboards.

I'm optimistic that Windows laptop manufacturers will eventually get the right formula for well-priced "laptops of the future."
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Technocrat   Preparing for a Future of Laptops   10/11/2011 9:16:01 PM
Alternatives are Possible, but Profitable ?

Hi Alan  I agree that mainstream laptop vendors should take a page out of Apples example - I am relatively certain that something comparable can be built by other manufacturers.  

It seems like they (Major PC Makers) do not really want to invest in laptops, but laptops are still very popular and necessary. And there is still a considerable market for people who want and need a laptop. 
Here's hoping PC based manufacturers give us decent alternatives to spending 1,800 for a laptop.

Alan Reiter   Preparing for a Future of Laptops   10/11/2011 5:03:43 PM
Re: disc drive
Hi Rowan,

I'm certainly not suggesting that there isn't a need for older forms of technology, such as DVDs, rather than streaming -- even though Apple, as a prime example, is championing downloading applications and, even, operating systems.

People who use a laptop as their only or primary computer will likely already have or will purchase a DVD player/burner and peripherals. I certainly have purchased DVD players, external keyboards, docks, etc.

And, I prefer to rent or buy DVDs, rather than stream, because I want to see all the extra content (featurettes, bloopers, etc.) that aren't available with streaming movies.

But for people who use a laptop as their secondary computer (and even those who don't), these peripherals are becoming less important. I can't remember when I last bought a program on a DVD. However, I did have to load an OS from a DVD, and was glad I had an DVD player.

I did see that Onion broadcast, and might have even referred to it on a blog I wrote for Internet Evolution.
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Rowan   Preparing for a Future of Laptops   10/11/2011 3:43:30 PM
disc drive
I just popped out my CD/DVD drive from my desktop in order to put it in my old computer to sell, and almost instantly was hit with the need to play a DVD (a screener of a TV show I was reviewing). I didn't have a good setup with a TV, so had to make do with a less than optimal viewing. So while I can see the idea of the CD/DVD/Blu-Ray drive disappearing as something that's likely to happen, I'm just not there yet.

Also, this Onion report on Apple dispensing with keyboards entirely may entertain some of you...
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