Are Notebooks Becoming Relics?

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Ben Bajarin is a principal at Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to the “Big Picture” opinion column that appears every Monday here on Techland.

This may be one of the more controversial columns I have written in some time, although my goal is not to be controversial, but to spur thought — so please hear me out.

It’s no secret that I am very bullish on the tablet form factor. And in light of Microsoft’s launch of its Surface computers, it is becoming clear that future computers may not look anything like the computers we know today.

(MORE: Photos from Microsoft’s Surface launch)

Since the launch of the first iPad, I have written extensively about how I believe tablets will shape the future of computing. But there are still many in the industry who have long watched, predicted, and benefited from the successful, worldwide evolution of desktop computers into notebook computers, and who disagree with the more bullish thinking about tablets eventually replacing notebooks.

At analyst meetings I attend and during the many conversations I have with industry folks, there seems to be a constant theme based around the idea of tablets evolving into notebooks. In essence, there’s a belief that tablet designs will shift in form and function to be more like notebooks than less. The end result is the convergence of a notebook with a tablet.

Microsoft’s Surface launch is an example of this. There’s a good chance that with Windows 8, this form factor will appeal to a segment of the market. If that happens, and because of Windows 8, I believe it’s inevitable that all major software going forward will be re-imagined for touch interfaces first and foremost.

The Notebooks We Know Today Will Become Relics

Because of the incredible growth of tablets and smartphones in recent years, many software developers have turned their efforts to touch. I have been one of the foremost proponents of touch computing and I firmly believe it’s 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 (also known as the 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’m looking at the past. However, when I see how kids, the elderly, non-techies, first time computer users in emerging markets and more all use the iPad, I’m convinced that I’m looking at the future.

If you read my column on tablets and 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 CFO Peter Oppenheimer recently refer to the Mac business as desktops and portables. Many desktop use cases are the same when it comes to notebooks.

(MORE: Making PCs Truly Personal: Visions of a Computer in Every Pocket)

The only difference between the two is that one is portable and one is not. The iPad, however, is much more of a personal mobile computer than a notebook ever was or will ever be, and the drastic difference in use cases between the iPad and notebooks is significant.

I don’t know any iPad owners who have stopped using their notebooks or desktops entirely. Sometimes there are times when you want a larger screen and a keyboard to accomplish various 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’s another scenario I can see playing out that may make the notebook form factor irrelevant for many consumers.

Desktops Evolve into a New Role

Believe it or not, I see desktops making a comeback. There’s 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 trying to converge a notebook with a tablet, I think a better solution would be to pair a desktop all-in-one with a tablet. This would be especially interesting in consumer markets.

In this solution, when you want a big screen and a full keyboard, for instance, you get it in a no-compromise package with more processing power, graphics power, memory and storage than you would ever get in a converged tablet/notebook or standard notebook. Then when you want a mobile computer, you get a no-compromise mobile computer — a tablet. I think this makes a lot of sense for the market, perhaps even more than the converged notebook/tablet form factor.

Without fully testing one of these converged notebook/tablet devices like Microsoft Surface, it’s hard to say this with absolute confidence, of course. But my fear with this converged form factor is that it will be a combination of a compromised notebook and a compromised tablet. Even though it’s trying to be the best of both worlds, my fear is that it would fails at both — or at the very least be heavily compromised on both fronts. Plus, if you buy into my logic that a notebook is just a portable desktop, then the notebook becomes irrelevant in a desktop-and-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’s why I refer to it as a “solution” because it would need to have solution-based thinking for this particular scenario to work right. For instance, this would need to work well in a family setting where each person in the house has their own tablet, while a single desktop remains the communal machine used for heavy lifting. Each person’s cloud would have to work harmoniously on a personal level and also at the family level.

In fact, I have been trying this experiment for myself: 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 specific use cases 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 wouldn’t be shocked if this solution gains traction at some point in the future.

Again, this topic is meant as more of a thought exercise based around a scenario that I could see playing out. When I witness many vendors’ excitement around notebooks, I’m sensing they’re investing in the past, not in the future. Rarely am I struck with such a feeling, but that’s exactly the feeling I’ve been having lately.

(MORE: 23 Questions About Microsoft’s ‘Surface’ Windows 8 Tablet)

Ben Bajarin is a principal at Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to the “Big Picture” opinion column that appears every Monday here on Techland.

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