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A Brief History of Laptops and Where to Next

Why have the tablet and smartphone been unable to replace the position the laptop holds in the world of computing?

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What-the-Future-Holds-for-Laptops

While the tablet and smartphone may have risen to become some of the hottest tech products in recent history, they have been unable to replace the position the laptop holds in the world of computing.  Many experts have predicted that the mobile revolution would finally topple the dominance of the laptop market, and there is no doubt that it has had an impact.  But it hasn’t been able to truly take over from the laptop.  But why is that?

It’s simple when you think about it.  The laptop still provides one of the easiest ways to work from almost anywhere and, despite some of its limitations, it is still looked at as the one piece of equipment needed to truly get work done while on the road.  But will the laptop keep its dominant position as technology marches ahead to the future, or will it go the way of the desktop and end up being only for certain segments of the market?

Ultimately only time will tell.  A lot will be riding on future innovation across both the mobile and the laptop markets to determine who will emerge the ultimate victor in the fight for dominance.  However, I believe, thanks to some technology that is already beginning to rise in popularity, that the laptop will continue to hold its place as one of the very best computing devices for those who want to get serious work accomplished or even game while they are traveling.

A Brief History of Laptops

early-laptop

Before we can look to the future, it is important to pause a moment and just take a quick glimpse on the history of laptops and how they came into being in the first place.  Without understanding the past, it is hard to judge what the future holds.

Early History

So what was the first laptop?  As with most things, what you judge as the first laptop is somewhat up for debate.  However, if you want to be more technically correct, the first laptops weren’t really laptops at all.  They were portable computers.  Essentially this meant that they were fat and clunky boxes with a keyboard attached to them and usually a floppy disk drive.  These would fold up and there was a handle at the top that allowed you to carry with it wherever you went.  Although you would probably strain a muscle if you had to carry it for long distances.

Long before any of these saw the light of day, however, engineers at Xerox way back in the early 1970s had already determined that portable computers were feasible and developed several concepts.  Many of these never saw the light of day and those who did, such as the Xerox PARC, only had limited production runs and were never commercial hits.

From that point, many different companies such as Epson, Compaq and many more developed different portable machines.  Some of these did manage to hit the market, while others did not.  But none saw huge commercial success.  The true turning point occurred when the United States Air Force ordered a RFP on an easily portable laptop.  The company known as ZDS, managed to win the proposal with its design and the Air Force ordered 200,000 units making it the first truly successful portable computer.

Apple

first-mac-laptop

After the initial success of the Apple computer and then the Macintosh, Apple also began working on a new portable computer, releasing the first Powerbooks ever to be created.  These were much like the PC counterparts and were very boxy and heavy to carry around.  From this first release, Apple began to improve and evolve their Powerbook lines over the years as their operating system and technology improved until they reached the MacBook line that you see today.

Windows 95

The summer of 1995 was a turning point for notebook computers, as Microsoft released Windows 95.  For the first time, the operating system included advanced power management features instead of relying on BIOS related power functions.  At the same time, Intel began developing the Pentium processor, a processor that was much more power friendly than past chips.  This, along with the importance of the CD-ROM, can be seen as the point in time when notebooks began to evolve into what we know today.

Improved Technology

Since that time, hardware manufacturers and software companies have continued to improve their products offering even more power friendly options and chips that don’t require lots of space in order to keep cool.  This has allowed the laptop to become much lighter and thinner over the years and helped create an entire industry that we all see and use today.

Because of these improvements, laptops went on to surpass the desktop in terms of popularity simply because of their portability.  The benefits of working and using your computer from almost anywhere eclipsed the power capabilities of the desktop with some experts even believing the world of the desktop would vanish entirely.  While this hasn’t happened, there is little doubt that laptops have exceeded the expectations of experts everywhere and have grown to be a true powerhouse in the world of computers.

What Does the Future Hold?

thin-laptop

Now that we know at least a little about the history of laptops, it is time to look to the future.  Where are things headed and will the mobile market do what laptops did to desktops?

Rise of Mobile

First, let’s take a moment to talk about the rise of mobile devices and smartphones.  Some experts believed that with the rise in popularity of the tablet and smartphone, laptops would begin to go the way of the dinosaur, as people slimmed down the devices they used in their homes.  Now, while the tablet market has exploded and become a force to be reckoned with, it has yet to cause the world of the laptop to diminish.

Why is that?  The fact is the form factor of the laptop is one of the very best ways people can get things done.  The clamshell style design with a screen on top and a keyboard on the bottom still proves to be the most efficient way to work in many circumstances.  What the rise of mobile has done for the laptop is inspire manufacturers to create a laptop that is thinner and lighter and much easier to carry around with you day in and day out.

Form Factor Changes

So if the traditional laptop design works so well, will there be any changes coming to it?  Don’t expect anything major in the future, but you can expect to see some modifications and some of these changes can already be seen reaching the market.  Many experts believe that the hybrid design that we are beginning to see with a tablet that can be removed from the keyboard and used will become more standard compared to the more unique novelty versions we see today.  Imagine a world where every laptop is also a tablet.  How would that change how you worked?

laptop-hybrid

Controls

Touchscreens have risen to become the preferred method for many people to control their computing experience, and many laptops are also shipping today with touchscreens.  Ever since the release of Windows 8, PC computing has become far more touch friendly than it has in the past.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that the trackpad is going away.  For some tasks, it just works better and for now it seems the trackpad is here to stay.  Of course, that doesn’t mean the traditional computer mouse isn’t in danger of becoming obsolete.  Mouse companies such as Logitech are already seeing a loss in market as consumers switch to trackpad only or touchscreen interfaces, and with the advent of other control technologies, the mouse could be in its twilight years.

It won’t just be touchscreens that usher in the death of the mouse, however.  Gesture controls using technology such as Microsoft Kinect are becoming even more popular and voice controls from services such as Siri and Cortana are becoming smarter all the time.  Think Star Trek computer interfaces.  How great would it be just to issue all your commands with your voice.

“We think there’s something inherently powerful about just opening up [your laptop] and having the space above your computer transform into something interactive,” said Andy Miller, president and chief operating officer of Leap Motion. “And when you think about it, we’re really just scratching the surface.”

Others also think the mouse is on its last leg.  “I do believe the mouse is going to be displaced, and potentially fairly rapidly,” Carl Korobkin, vice president of business development at Tobii Technology said. “But that will take some time. It depends on what applications are available, but I do think that the mouse is reaching the end of its run.”

Battery Life

If there is one thing that needs to be addressed in the world of computing, it is the battery life.  Currently, you pretty much can’t go through a day without having to plug your laptop or tablet in for a good charge.  In recent years, as power requirements have improved and batteries have gotten stronger, you have seen devices that can go 5 or even 10 hours at a time depending on how you use your device.

Over the next few years, you can expect to see major improvements in battery life as technology continues to evolve.  Many manufacturers ultimate goal is to reach a point where your battery will last you all day regardless of what you are doing.  If you are a light user, you may even be able to go days or even a week without having to worry about charging your laptop.

One thing on batteries is certain, there is room for improvement.  Imagine how much more useful your laptop will be if you could use it all day without having to worry about finding an electrical outlet to charge it after a few hours of heavy work?  Once this happens, you can expect to see a true explosion in usage as people take their devices and use them regularly from almost anywhere whether that is at home, the local coffee shop or even in their cars.  Although I don’t want to think about the traffic nightmares because people are using their laptops.

Bottom Line

At the end of the day you can bank on your laptop not going anywhere.  The traditional clamshell style design is here to stay although how you interact with your laptop is likely to change.  Over the next few years you can expect great strides to be made in the battery life of your devices and you may even begin to see entirely new ways to control your laptops as well, causing the need for a mouse to become obsolete.  Eye controls, voice controls and gestures are beginning to rise in popularity and could one day make your laptop even easier to control than it is today.

While I wouldn’t expect anything truly life altering to come to the design of the laptop, the incorporation of these new technologies will change the way we work and alter how we interact with our laptops on a daily basis.  In the end, there is so much on the horizon when it comes to our laptops and you can expect these new technologies to improve how we work and interact with computers and the Internet.  When will this new tech arrive?  There is no set timeline.  But you can expect to see some of these new innovations come to laptops by 2018 and some even sooner than that as manufacturers continue to innovate and improve the laptop so it continues to be a technology leader well into the future.

By Matt Garrett

Matt is an IT professional with over fifteen years experience supporting network infrastructure and computers. An avid gamer, Matt enjoys his time playing and writing about his experiences both in the IT world and in the gaming communities. You can find more of his writing on our sister ShopNinja sites where he enjoys talking about anything and everything tech.

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