Laptops play catch up to the iPad, Xoom

Laptops are falling behind tablet, smartphone in social-networking era. Apple, others will likely address this more aggressively as it becomes clear that old laptop paradigm no longer works.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
2 min read

Market researcher Gartner released a research note Thursday claiming that laptops are not meeting the demands of the social-networking era. So, will mobile PCs become more like the Xoom and the iPad, which are, in turn, larger versions of the smartphone? In a word, yes.

This theory--or fact, depending on how you look at it--can also be restated as the post-PC era, which is the Apple marketing-spin corollary to the Gartner argument.

But let's stick to Gartner's analysis about the unsuitability of laptops in the social-networking era. Here are the most significant points in the note about the average mainstream laptop:

  • Battery life: not capable of all-day "untethered computing"
  • Connections: constant and immediate connections are not possible (i.e., no standard 3G/4G)
  • Heavy: still too heavy, lacks real mobility

What this means is more laptops need to be like the 11.6-inch MacBook Air: very light, very thin--just like a tablet and, by extension, like a smartphone.

Though small laptops aren't for everybody, more people will gravitate to this style as companies like Apple upgrade to powerful silicon like Intel's low-voltage Sandy Bridge processor (and its future Ivy Bridge chip) and upcoming power-efficient chips from Advanced Micro Devices.

And don't count out a clamshell MacBook--or a variation on that theme--sporting a future Apple A6 processor or an HP laptop packing a Qualcomm chip.

More future laptops will be like the 11.6-inch MacBook Air--but with 3G/4G standard and longer battery life.
More future laptops will be like the 11.6-inch MacBook Air--but with 3G/4G standard and longer battery life. Apple

In the more immediate future, this trend stipulates that Apple seriously consider built-in 3G/4G capability in the next version of the Air, as an Apple survey about 3G in a future MacBook Air seems to indicate the company is doing. As always, battery life would need improvement too.

So, what about the Netbook, you might ask. That delivered on mobility but not--until recently--on long battery life, nor on standard 3G. Nor, most importantly, on adequate performance (for a laptop that would serve as someone's everyday machine). The Netbook was ahead of its time but has always been hampered by Intel's too-specific ideas about what a Netbook should and should not be.

For better or worse, it's going to take a company like Apple to take the lead in redefining the high-mobility laptop. With help, of course, from companies like Hewlett-Packard and Sony--the HP Pavilion dm1z and Sony Y series, respectively, are a good start.

A $999 MacBook Air with 3G/4G and monthly broadband plans similar to those of the iPad? That's another good start. Any takers?