The laptop as we know it is in the middle of an identity crisis.
After years of solid growth without any fundamental changes - aside from a quick, ill-fated flirtation with netbooks - the clamshell's relevance is now threatened by phones and tablets. The new breed of touchscreen mobile devices hasn't eliminated the need for PCs with trackpads and keyboards, but they have caused people to rethink whether they need a second notebook at home.
In response, PC makers are now ushering the laptop into the era of touch, with help from the drastic operating system overhaul that is Windows 8. The ride will be bumpy over the next few years, as PC makers try to generate excitement for laptops by introducing new hybrid designs, such as swiveling touchscreens and detachable displays.
But what happens after that? In five years, once the transitional hybrid period shakes out, what will the clamshell look like?
PCWorld spoke with chip makers, PC manufacturers, and analysts to learn more about what laptops will offer circa 2018. Join us as we peer into a multifaceted crystal ball to decipher the future of the notebook.
Refining the hybrid
As PC manufacturers ready the first round of Windows 8 laptop-tablet hybrids, they're willing to admit that their concepts are works in progress. Over time, they'll need to eliminate clumsy hardware compromises in the conversion from clamshell to tablet (and back again), such as awkward twisting motions, and the need to use two hands to detach a hybrid's display from its keyboard.
"Clearly, the ecosystem hasn't gotten [hybrids] right yet," says Kevin Lensing, AMD's director of notebook products. "They're interesting, but maybe a little bit hokey in their implementation."
Lensing says that he's already seen some of the next-generation laptop-tablet hybrids from PC vendors, and their conversion mechanisms already look and behave better than those of the first wave of products. Some even gain processing power when the tablet is docked to a keyboard and trackpad.
Over time, Lensing expects docking to become more seamless, even as it adds power, storage, and extended battery. "We're in year one of a brand new mechanical design, and I think there's going to be multiple iterations of getting it to be just as robust as a real notebook," he says.
Mark VandenBrink, chief technical officer of HP's PC business, agrees that the next five years of hardware development will focus on reducing the clunkiness of the laptop-tablet hybrid. HP is no stranger to the category--the company's TouchSmart laptops appeared before Windows 8, and VandenBrink expects to see both good and bad designs as PC makers adjust.
"It's easy to do, but it's really, really hard to do well," VandenBrink says.
Even as convertibles begin their long process of evolution, there's still room for a major shake-up. Pat Moorhead, a tech industry analyst and consultant who specializes in future scenarios, believes that the modular PC concept will eventually go wireless. Smartphones could one day provide all the necessary storage and processing power, and the laptop may become little more than a dumb shell.
The software barriers to making this happen are already falling, Moorhead says, with operating systems such as Android and iOS designed to scale across screen sizes. He thinks that roadblocks in wireless technology could be demolished within five years as well.
The WiGig Alliance is already pushing for the use of spectrum around 60GHz, which would support speedy display connections and wireless docking. The challenge, Moorhead says, will be to get device makers to agree on a standard for wireless communication among devices.
But he's optimistic. "With the proliferation of very inexpensive large displays, it's going to be hard to walk into a room in the western world where you're not going to be able to connect to some sort of display," Moorhead says.
Moving beyond the trackpad and keyboard
The keyboard and trackpad aren't going away, at least not on the watch of the PC manufacturers I spoke with. But those old standbys may evolve in the next five years to grow alongside new input methods.
Mark Aevermann, a senior product manager at Nvidia, thinks that voice recognition, hand gestures, and even eye tracking could take off in the next five years. Relevant concepts are already kicking around now--Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Kinect, and Tobii's eye-tracking technology come to mind--and though they may now seem ill-equipped to supplant trackpads and keyboards, Aevermann recommends keeping an open mind.
"I think writing off any one device category or method of input or interaction is basically saying there aren't creative people out there," he says. "I think there are tons of people out there thinking about how to make the experiences more accessible."
As for the trackpad, HP's Mark VandenBrink sees room for improvement in a couple areas. Instead of trackpads consisting of a tiny square in front of the keyboard, VandenBrink envisions a dynamic trackpad that covers a lot more of the laptop's surface. He also sees potential for adaptive trackpads that learn your preferences and tendencies as you go.
We're already starting to see some innovation on the trackpad and keyboard front. Last month, Synaptics introduced a pressure-sensitive trackpad and a capacitive keyboard that is thinner and lets the user disable the cursor while typing. The trackpad on Intel's Nikiski concept, shown off at CES in January and pictured at the very top of this article, runs the length of the keyboard and uses palm detection to switch off during typing.
Moorhead offers some other far-out ideas for overhauling the trackpad and keyboard completely. Notebooks of the future, he imagines, could come equipped with two or more high-definition cameras, working in concert to track the user's hands. If the cameras become accurate enough, they could allow any surface to serve as a trackpad, as the cameras pick up the gliding of your hand and the twitching of your fingers, and the laptop's software translates that information into cursor functions.
The same possibility applies to keyboards. Moorhead believes that, with high-definition cameras on either side of the screen, any surface could become a virtual keyboard, with the screen showing a virtual keyboard overlay indicating where the user's fingers are landing.
Users may at first resist the idea of losing physical feedback from a trackpad, but Moorhead notes that the iPhone's touchscreen keyboard was pooh-poohed in its early days as well.
"The reality is you give [people] an alternative where there's a benefit, and you could potentially eliminate the entire keyboard deck," Moorhead says. He admitted, though, that this scenario is unlikely to become reality in the next five years.
More power for new ways of computing
Given the state of computing today, it's tempting to argue that most users don't need more processing power. Most modern laptops have no problem handling high-definition video, juggling lots of browser tabs, and playing games on Facebook or other websites. Unless you're a hardcore gamer or a creative professional with high-end photo or video software, current-generation processors are good enough.
The PC and chip makers I spoke with, however, believe that a new stage of computing is at hand. All of the burgeoning input methods mentioned earlier--particularly voice and gesture recognition--will require more processing power if they're to be handled without any lag. Advances in video and screen resolution will demand more oomph as well.
Gary Richman, a director in Intel's PC Client Solutions division, sees even more opportunities coming to light in the next five years. He imagines that PCs will become more context-aware, enabling them to detect other nearby devices and interact with them automatically. He also believes that PCs will become more like personal servants that can perform tasks even when they're not directly in use. For example, a laptop might be able to grab a video from your camera, transcode it, and upload it even when it's resting in a laptop bag.
"Our goal is to be able to enable those things," Richman says. "We need good enough performance, which is pretty great compared to where we are right now."
AMD's Kevin Lensing sees two ways that the future of the PC may unfold: In one scenario, workloads don't change, and PCs become smaller, less expensive, and more commoditized. In a second scenario, new modes of computing require chip makers to focus on increasing processing power rather than on developing thinner and lighter machines.
"The key is, we've got to decide whether a new era of the PC is on the horizon," he says.
The argument for the traditional clamshell
Many of the experts I spoke with believe that hybrid devices will come to dominate the laptop market in the next five years. But that doesn't mean traditional laptops are going away. Users may still want to own a portable computer with a larger screen; and even if touch becomes standard across PCs, convertible devices may not work especially well with larger laptops.
"If you can do everything you can do with clamshell, in the same size, at the same cost, sure it's less interesting, but we have a long engineering road to go before we're at that point," Intel's Gary Richman says.
Around 2018, users will see a "bifurcation of devices," says AMD's Lensing. When users need more power than a tablet or hybrid can provide, they'll turn to laptops, but even those devices will be slimmer and more battery-efficient. He expects laptops that are thicker than an inch to all but vanish, except for high-end gaming rigs and design workstations.
"Much like people said desktops would go away, the traditional notebook is not going to disappear," Lensing says. "But the average device the user carries for basic everyday computing is likely to be a much thinner device--and potentially one of these no-compromise devices."
As Nvidia's Mark Aevermann points out, it's okay that no single mode of portable computing will completely dominate in the next five years. Though he thinks that low-cost tablets and hybrids will revolutionize the industry, Aevermann still sees plenty of room for a multitude of devices to survive, including the premium notebook.
"I do think this one-size-fits-all mentality is a thing of the past," he says, "and consumer choice is the way of the future."
As laptops work through their identity crisis, it's a comforting thought: Some things will change, but some things will always be the same.