The mobile device revolution is in full swing. From Smartphones and Superphones that changed the mobile device game to Tablets that are threatening to effectively put Netbooks out of business save for a few niche applications, our mobile world is changing. This is having an impact on less than mobile computing – your large Laptops and also your venerable Desktop Computer.

Are we moving toward the death of the computer and laptop as we know it today?

The rise and rise of the laptop

When you look at and use Laptops today it is hard to believe that laptops with color screens only became commonplace from the early 1990’s, while Laptops in their earliest form has been around since the middle 1970’s.

The Laptop has come a long way since then, and yet it has never replaced the good old desktop workstation. This has partly been due to Laptops and Notebook computers offering less bang per buck than Desktops – a similarly specced Laptop will be more expensive than a similarly specced Desktop.

Another disadvantage is that you cannot easily upgrade a Laptop save the RAM and hard drive, for longevity sakes many companies issue their office staff with Desktop Computers to ensure that they can be upgraded over a few years.

Lastly there is the question of pure performance – high end computing components tend to arrive in the Desktop before they are available in Laptops. Most graphics cards for Laptops are slightly lower performing than their Desktop counterparts as well.

Due to these shortcomings the Desktop has survived, even though Laptops have been out-selling Desktops since 2008.

Then there was the NETBOOK

Remember 16 October 2007? You should. This was the day that Asus unleashed the EEEPC 4G on the world. The first mass produced netbook, sporting a 7inch screen, took the world by storm. Others followed, the arguably better Acer Aspire One being a notable example. Laptops might have been outselling Desktops since 2008, but this has largely been due to the popularity of Netbooks, which have also been taking market share away from traditional Laptops.

The problem with Netbook is also its great advantage – small size. With the small size comes portability and convenience. The issue that faces them is that they have tiny screens, and the hardware is really bottom of the barrel as far as performance goes.

They generally perform well in the battery life department, at least when compared to Laptops. Five Hours plus is expected, and the newer Netbooks promise even more, up to nine hours battery life.

And then the Tablet crashes the party…

Tablet Computers have been around for almost as long as Laptops. In fact, the first Apple Tablet computer was released in 1993! Compared to the iPad, Galaxy Tab and other Tablet Devices they are clunky and inconvenient though.

Tablets come in two flavors today, Tablet Computers and then Internet Tablets, or Tablet Devices. I believe them to be two distinct groups, and from here on when I refer to Tablets I am referring to modern Internet Tablets, and in any other case I will refer to “Tablet Computers” to differentiate.

Modern Tablets have a few things that weigh in their favor when compared to Netbooks:

  • Better Battery Life.
  • Better Screens.
  • Better Touch Interface Implementation.
  • Similar Processing and Ram specifications (In general the newer Netbooks tend to have an advantage here.)
  • Integrated peripherals like GSM, Mobile Internet like 3G/4G, GPS, Cameras, Accelerometers, Near Field Communications.
  • More Storage Space – 64Gig storage is the upper norm for Tablets, and on Netbooks with Solid State Drives (SSD’s) this is also the upper limit, on some models you can get more storage with traditional hard-drives.
  • Optimized Operating Systems.
  • The APP Space.

Netbooks have a slight advantage in that on some you can upgrade the RAM and hard-drives, and the typing experience is generally better what with the “real” keyboards they have, tiny as they are. In the case of Tablets you can get yourself proper keyboards as well these days.

And don’t forget Smartphones and Superphones

There is an argument for including Smartphones like the Nokia Communicators and Superphones like the iPhone and Nexus S in the Mobile Computing group that this article is exploring. Where their regular first generation Cellphone brethren are Phones first and foremost, and the second generation of devices are Cellphones that allow other kinds of communication, third generation phones started adding other functionality to the mix.

Modern Smartphones and Superphones are communication devices first and foremost. The fact that they can make and receive calls is just a part of the communication capabilities that they have. They can send e-mail, chat on popular networks like Skype and Gtalk, integrate with Social Media like Facebook and Twitter and so on.

In that regard they are better all-round communications devices than Netbooks and Laptops are, but they are essentially companions to regular mobile computing devices. One important limiting factor is screen size, and therefore also the included keyboard size. While it is entirely possible to type an e-mail on one of these devices, it is unpractical to do so for extended periods of time.

I would prefer to differentiate between communications devices with a secondary mobile computing function – phone type devices – and mobile computing devices with a secondary communications function.

Modern Tablets fall neatly in between these two categories. While only a few first generation Tablets can make and receive calls – the Samsung Galaxy Tab P1000 is one, more and more of the second generation Tablets are beginning to include this capability.

What does this bode for the future?

A modern Tablet costs slightly more than a modern Netbook. Spec for spec Netbooks will be competing in the raw computing power stakes for a while to come, but the moment you add a GPS and 3G to a Netbook you will find that Tablets start winning the price war handily. Add an on-board camera of any decent spec and suddenly Netbooks are priced out of the game.

Netbooks still outsell Tablets at the moment. In the first two and a half years of Netbook sales 89MILLION Intel powered Netbooks where sold. That is a handy figure. And Tablets are struggling to cut into that market as well. Only about half of all Tablet sales are at the cost of Netbook sales, about 5Netbook sales are lost for every 10Tablets sold.

Predictions are that we will see more than a 100MILLION Netbook sales per annum very soon.

If you look at these numbers it does not seem that Tablets are going to kill the Netbook in the next two to three years. I do believe that eventually they will begin to replace Netbooks as the mobile computing device of choice. At some point the processor gap will close, it is already doing so, and Tablets will always offer more gadgets like GPS for less than what Netbooks can offer them.

And then there is the APP space…

Here we are getting to a part of the equation that has been largely ignored in this article – software in general, and APPs in particular. Look, Netbooks have one major disadvantage when it comes to software – the Operating System. Having a full-blown point-and-click interface is fine on a large device without a touch interface like a PC or full Laptop where your interaction devices (keyboard and mouse) are also your main working tools.

A keyboard is first and foremost a typing tool. A mouse is a selection tool – and while both have been a part of computers since almost inception, neither are great tools for interacting with them.

Your hands are what you use to interact with your world, and why not with your computer? This is what makes Tablets so much fun to work with, the interaction with them just makes so much sense!

And then you get to the second part of the problem, the efficiency of the OS. iOS and Android and the other players on the Tablet scene have been built from the ground up to work well on lower powered devices. They make better use of the resources available to them, and a plus is that they get more bang for their battery.

Windows 7, and chopped down Linux – at least the way the hardware vendors chop their Linux – does not play well with Netbooks. For one, the OS’s are too heavy for the oomf on tap, and secondly the screen sizes are problematically small.

Windows simply does not fit on a Netbook screen, and neither does Gnome or KDE or MacOS.

Yes there are movements in the right direction, KDE4 has a Netbook friendly Interface, Gnome 3 will be very Netbook Friendly and then of course there is Ubuntu Unity which I am using on a 13.3″ Sony Vaio right now (It works well btw!) and which will be shipping with Ubuntu Natty Narwhal in April.

Bear in mind also the rumors that Windows 8 will be sporting a Netbook friendly interface as well…

These are all great solutions to ease interaction on small screens, and those design philosophies that make better use of, and interface better on, small screens need to spill over onto the other programs that run on them. Using Microsoft Office with it’s clunky file menu is a pain on smaller screens, as well as previous generation browsers. Heaven forbid if you are a browser bar junkie, half your screen will be gone in no time!

Lastly there are the myriad of Apps that are available for mobile devices. While Linux have had crude App stores – or repositories – for many years and Ubuntu has sexed up the Application store recently before shamelessly being copied by Apple for their Mac App store, the applications available are the talk of the town.

It is extremely easy to build your own Apps for Android, iOS and even Blackberry and Windows Phone 7. While there is, at least in the case of Apple, very tight control over what is allowed into the App Store or not, almost anyone with a little coding experience can build an application and run it on a mobile device.

The variety on offer is staggering, and the quality is very high too.

Netbooks simply cannot compete here. They do not have the range of applications geared to the mobile lifestyle that Tablets have. With a Netbook the software you carry around is essentially your software that you use when you are stationary – software aimed specifically at the mobile computing experience like GPS Mapping software is in general an afterthought.

On modern Tablets the software is built for mobile use first and foremost, with the advantage that tools for office use, like document editing suites, are beginning to appear as well. While the utilitarian work oriented software on offer are rather rudimentary at the moment, they are bound to increase in quality and number very soon.

Allow me to make some wild predictions then

I love making predictions of where technology will go in the future. I enjoy mobile computing in particular, and I believe that modern Internet Tablets are the way to go. Netbooks, like Laptops and Desktops will never completely die out, but for mobile users who move around a lot they are simply not as practical as a Tablet.

I cannot replace my Laptop right now, I do specialized work on it that a Tablet cannot handle. I have managed to replace my cellphone though, and if I am ever more on the road I will leave my Laptop at the office.

I use my Galaxy Tab more and more every week. There are days that I do not even switch on my Laptop at home after work. I have always wanted a Netbook until I got my Tablet, and now I know I will never get one.

I predict two buying directions for the future consumer – a Laptop or Desktop (depending on need) for work, and a Tablet/Superphone for everything else. Two or three devices will be the norm for most people, I limit myself to two, and Netbooks will feature less as Tablets eat into their market.

Smaller, lower specced Notebooks will also begin to be replaced by Tablets as they become more and more powerful.

The safe categories will be “real” computers, represented in the work and gaming arena by high-end desktops and Laptops of 15inces in screen size and larger.

Summary

So will Mobile Superdevices kill computing as we know it? No, but they have – and will continue – to change the way we use our computers. Mobile computing in all forms will be dominated by them, and I believe that low end pure Cellphones will eventually die out, leaving us with four main categories in computing:

  • Superphones
  • Tablets
  • Laptops
  • Desktops

These are bold statements, I know, but I believe the trends and figures agree with me. In five to ten years Netbooks and small laptops will be an afterthought, save the super powerful mini laptops for the mobile power user, and Tablets will be as commonplace as the personal computer and laptop – if not more so.

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