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Why the notebook as we know it is dead and convertibles aren't yet the right answer

by Ben Bajarin

February 3 2013

Ben Bajarin is Director of the Consumer Technology Practice at Creative Strategies, a strategy consulting firm in Silicon Valley.


"A notebook is really only a portable desktop; a tablet is something quite different."

I have written extensively since the launch of the first iPad about the tablet’s important role in the future of computing. But many in the industry who have long watched, predicted, and benefited from the evolution of the desktop computer to the notebook and its success disagree with the more bullish view that tablets could eventually replace laptops.

At analyst meetings and during many conversations with industry players, I constantly hear a theme of tablets turning into notebooks. In essence, there is a belief that the tablet will evolve in form and function to look more like a notebook rather than less. This device is in essence the convergence of a notebook with a tablet popularly referred to as hybrids and convertibles.

Much of this has to do with Windows 8 and there is no question that this form factor will appeal to a segment of the market. Thanks to Apple, Google, and Microsoft, I believe that it is inevitable that all major software going forward will be re-imagined for touch interfaces first and foremost.

Traditional notebooks will become relics

Because of the incredible growth of the iPad and smartphones over recent years, nearly all software developers have turned their eyes to touch. I have been one of the foremost proponents of touch computing and I firmly believe it is the foundation of our computing future. Clearly, the software industry has been reborn around touch computing–R.I.P Computer-Aided Display Control (aka 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 am looking at the past. Yet when I see how kids, elderly, non-techies, and first time computer users in emerging markets use the iPad, I am convinced I am looking at the future.

A notebook is really only a portable desktop computer.  It was fascinating to hear Apple’s COO Peter Oppenheimer on many Apple earnings calls, refer to the Mac business as desktops and portables–that’s my kind of industry terminology!

Many desktop use cases are the same on notebooks. The only difference between the two is that one is portable and one is not. Tablets are, however, much more of a personal mobile computer than a notebook ever was or will be and the drastic change in use cases between the iPad and notebooks is significant.  They are also even more mobile than a notebook, making tablets the ultimate mobile personal computer.

I don’t know anyone who owns an iPad who has stopped using their notebook or desktop entirely. There are times when you want a larger screen and a keyboard to accomplish some tasks. This is the best argument for the hybrid tablet / notebook computer. But there is another scenario I can see playing out that may make the notebook form factor irrelevant for many consumers.

The desktop’s new role

Believe it or not, I see desktops making a comeback due to a role change. 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 try to converge a notebook and a tablet, I think a better solution is to pair a desktop all-in-one with a tablet, in consumer markets.

The idea is that when you want a big screen, keyboard, etc., you get it in a no compromise package with more processing power, graphics, memory, and storage than you would ever get in a converged tablet / notebook or a laptop. When you want a mobile computer you get a no compromise mobile computer with a tablet.

I think this makes a lot of sense, perhaps even more than a converged notebook / tablet for the mass market.

I’ve tested many of these converged notebook / tablet devices and more work still needs to be done to bring the best of both worlds. Even though it is trying to be the best of both worlds, it fails at both, or at the very least is heavily compromised on both fronts. Plus, if you buy my logic that a notebook is just a portable desktop, then the notebook becomes irrelevant in a desktop / 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 has to date for this to work. Solution based thinking is needed for this particular scenario to be done right.

This even works in a family setting where each member of the house has their own tablet screen and the desktop remains the communal screen for more “heavy lifting.” Each person’s cloud would have to work harmoniously on a personal level and also at a family level. The same is true in business cases for teams and groups to work together. I know many who are using Dropbox or Box.net to accomplish a more shared workflow but more work still needs to be done.

I have in fact been trying this experiment for myself at my house. 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 this specific use case in mind.

Goodbye personal notebook?

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 would not be shocked if this solution gains traction at some point in the future.

This topic again is meant more of a thought exercise around a scenario that I could see playing out. Rarely am I struck with a feeling of excitement these days from notebook vendor announcements; rather I get the sense they are investing in the past.

Tablets and tablet technology have a much brighter future.

Ben Bajarin is Director of the Consumer Technology Practice at Creative Strategies, a strategy consulting firm in Silicon Valley.
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