A lot has changed in the 20 years since the first laptop computers appeared, including gigahertz processors, colour screens, optical drives and wireless data. However, one thing that has stubbornly stayed the same is the conventional clamshell format with its hinged display lid that opens to reveal a mechanical keyboard.
That's about to change. The rules of notebook design and the components that go inside are being rewritten to make the road a better place to work and play.
"Between now and 2015, we expect to see a series of big changes that will redefine what a notebook is and what it looks like," Intel's evangelist for mobile products, Mike Trainor, said.
With crystal ball in hand, we talked to designers, engineers and marketers about how notebooks are likely to change over the next seven years. Here's what they told us.
Concepts for the future
First, let's take a look at some concept notebooks. Just as futuristic show cars provide insight into what we might be driving in the future, concept notebooks offer a sneak peek at how we'll be computing.
These concept notebooks are typically created by independent designers and firms retained by laptop vendors. This is highly secretive business - the designers we spoke to were willing to talk about some of their concepts but couldn't tell us who they were working for.
Rarely does a concept notebook make it to the real world as a whole unit, but certain aspects often make it into production. Early 1990s concept devices contained integrated pointing devices, speakers and Web cams, all of which are now standard equipment.
For example, several concept laptops rely on touch-sensitive screens that act as the system's keyboard and mouse and go beyond today's multi-touch technology. To give an idea of its potential, imagine being able to slide a finger across the screen to immediately shut off the display and keep data confidential.
The Compenion concept notebook from German independent designer, Felix Schmidberger, borrows heavily from slider mobile phones to move beyond the clamshell. Rather than lifting the lid open, it just slides up.
The pair of superbright organic LED panels slide into place next to each other, with the lower panel acting as keyboard or scribble pad. The whole thing is only three-quarters of an inch thick.
"It reduces thickness, but the slider was more about the feel of using the notebook," Schmidberger said. "The idea is to break free from traditional notebook hardware without having to adapt to new ways of using a computer."
Together, the 11-inch screens will yield about 16 inches of usable workspace, so the system has the dimensions and weight of a thin and light system but the screen of a larger one.
Dual-screen systems could well be the rage in seven years. The Canova from V12 Design, an Italian design firm, is closer to the tried and true clamshell layout, but with a twist. Instead of a display and a mechanical keyboard, the device has two touch-sensitive displays: the upper screen is primarily for viewing applications, and the lower screen is for the mundane activities of typing, drawing and jotting notes.
But the Canova can also lie flat for a large expanse of working space.
According to designer, Valero Cometti, "the idea was to close the gap between man and machine". This notebook changes personality depending on how it's held. Opened all the way, it's a sketch pad. Fold it half open and rotate it 90 degrees, and it's an e-book. By emulating a musical keyboard on the lower half, when it's fl at on a table, it can be a go-anywhere piano.
Independent designer, Jonathan Lucas, has an eccentric Siafu concept that touches the user. That's because Siafu is for the blind and has no screen.
"The idea was to open a new realm of digital interface for the visually impaired by enhancing and even surpassing existing technologies that currently cater to this group," Lucas said.
Siafu converts images into corresponding 3D shapes that are created with Magneclay, an oil-based synthetic material that instantly forms shapes in response to electrical fields. In such hands-on computing, users interact with Siafu using their fingers to feel the bumps and protrusions that pop up. The Magneclay surface could be used for reading a Braille newspaper, feeling the shape of someone's face or going over a tactile representation of a blueprint. When could it be available? "I don't know," Lucas answered. "How about 2015?"
Imagine a system that is at home in a car, in an Internet cafe or on a hotel desk, and you have the job description of Anna Lopez' Cario.
"The concept offers several ways of working while on the move or at a desk," the designer explained. Equal parts form, function and fashion, this concept replaces the traditional lid hinge with a shiny bar that - as the name implies - is a carrying handle. It also allows the lid to fold up for travel and can be converted into an easel or sit on a car's steering wheel.
Not surprisingly, then, Cario comes into its own on the road. So the driver doesn't get cross-eyed by looking down at the screen when it's locked into the steering wheel, Cario has a microprojector that projects its images onto the vehicle's windshield. This heads-up display can show maps, videoconferences and find the closest petrol station.
"The notebook is connected to the [car's] dashboard so that Cario can only be operated if the vehicle is stationary," Lopez said.
Some changes and new functionality in the laptops we'll use in 2015 will come about because of significant advances in the materials used to create the devices. Magneclay is just one example.
Another example is a change in the plastics used in the notebook case. In fact, by 2015, dropping a notebook might not be the catastrophe it can be today. That's because a group at the University of California Los Angeles' Exotic Materials Institute, led by Fred Wudl, has come up with an epoxy that's strong, durable and can repair itself.
Called Automend, small cracks can be sealed by just heating the surface with a hair dryer, making it a godsend for the clumsy among us.
Another example relates to peripherals used on the road. For instance, future mobile systems could easily include projectors, which will be reduced to about the size of a pack of cigarettes by 2015.
Because such projectors use a laser, "you can project images on a wall within a distance of several metres without having to adjust a lens," Schmidberger said. "It can even be bumpy or bent."
It doesn't take a very clear crystal ball to know that the next generation of notebooks will deliver much more computing power. And notebooks will also get smarter as components continue to shrink and more components get squeezed onto a sliver of silicon the size of a fingernail.
It's a sure bet that we won't be using a mere single- or double-core processor by 2015. Most notebooks will have at least six computational cores, if not eight, according to the experts we contacted. Such technology is available today, so it surely will be standard issue on laptops of the future, the experts agreed.
Having at least six computational cores at a user's disposal will not only make high-end simulations and data visualizations possible, but will also make for one heck of a game of Halo.
Missing your bus
The CPU's front side bus will likely disappear by 2015. The bus acts like a traffic cop, sending data to the different parts of the system at a slower speed than the computational core. In its place will be an integrated controller that makes this distribution of data much more efficient by operating faster.
As with multiple-core processors, this trend is already under way - Intel, for instance, has announced that its Nehalem CPU microarchitecture, set to debut later this year, will feature an integrated memory controller, eliminating the need for a front side bus.
With most notebooks having built-in wireless broadband connections, a new onslaught of data is expected. As a result, where we'll store accumulated files will be transformed.
According to Intel's Trainor, we'll see more storage capacity in smaller and smaller packages, along with solid-state memory that is lighter and faster, while being more rugged and using less power.
Currently, adding 64MB of solid-state capacity to a notebook's hard drive runs an extra $US1000. By 2015, the typical mainstream notebook could be outfitted with a 2TB hard disk drive. For smaller and lighter machines, look to having something like 250GB of fl ash memory, but it will likely come at a small premium.
There will be a new type of storage as well that can boost performance, Trainor said. Currently, with Windows Vista, a USB flash memory key can act as an intermediate data cache for the system's hard drive.
This makes the most-used data more quickly available for the processor, streamlining its operation. Called Turbo or Robson memory, this technique will go into overdrive when the flash memory is put on the motherboard for faster access, Trainor said.
Displays We'll look at our notebooks in a different light in 2015 as sequential red, green, blue LED backlighting replaces the cold cathode fluorescent lighting tubes found in today's LCD screens. This technology will not only offer brighter images, but will also use less power.
Ultimately, organic LEDs will take over, although they may not be ready in time for a 2015 system in the sizes and quantities required for mass production. These screens have been used on phones for several years, and Sony's XEL-1 is the fi rst TV to have an OLED display. Its 11-inch OLED screen is just over a tenth of an inch thick.
In a more speculative vein, we just might have 3D displays that show the world as it really is. This will not only be great for gamers, but it can aid in representing complex data and displaying computer-aided designs.
Such displays could also revamp the way we interact with desktops. Imagine an on-screen desktop that, rather than a flat expanse, has depth and perspective so users can hide password lists behind the icon for opening the Web browser.
More, better power
Most experts agree future notebooks will be just as limited by battery life as they are now. But that doesn't mean we won't see significant advances in mobile power supplies.
While fuel cells that turn methanol into power showed promise over the past few years, batteries will continue to dominate the power scene. However, there will be a move from lithium-ion cells that have to be made in cylinders to lithium polymer cells that can be formed in a variety of shapes and sizes.
"This allows notebook designers to fill small nooks and crannies of a notebook with extra batteries," Trainor explained. Powering up could also change with inductive charging, which is key to both the Compenion and Cario concept notebooks. Rather than plugging a cord into the notebook to charge it, users just put the notebook on a special surface that has an inductive power pad, and juice is sent wirelessly to charge the battery.
The payoff is that there's no AC power adapter to carry, but this new method of charging devices will work only if enough charging pads are available. This technology is ready today, although it is a long way from being adopted widely enough to be useful.
An innovative mobile approach to power is taken by Nikola Knezevic, a Serbian designer who has turned the clamshell format on its head with solar panels. His concept design, called, not surprisingly, the Solar Laptop Concept, has an extra hinged lid covered with solar cells that can be adjusted to get the most out of the sun.
It'll add a few tenths of an inch to the system's thickness and won't be able to fully charge the system, but when users are done, they just fold it up and go. Still, Intel's Trainor, who avidly follows developments of technologies such as solar power, cautioned against becoming too optimistic that this type of technology will make it easier to keep laptops of the future charged.
"We're still a ways away from generating enough to power the notebook," he said.