Death Of The Desktop? – Traditional Laptops On The Bubble As Well?

Death Of The Desktop? – Traditional Laptops On The Bubble As Well?

Be careful what you wish for. Predictions of the death, or at least sharp decline of the desktop computer are nothing new to me. About half an hour after I opened the box my first – ever laptop computer arrived in back in 1996, it occurred to me that for the sort of use I put computers to, keeping a hulking, room-dominating, 45 pound desktop computer like the one I had at the time was an absurdity. In a 1998 column I observed:

“When you park a PowerBook beside one of today’s behemoth desktop Macs, it gives you pause to wonder how all the real estate that the latter occupy can be justified. Of course if you need a lot of expansion slots or multiple hard/CD-ROM/DVD-ROM/Zip drives, or multi-megabytes of VRAM power, or multi-processing, and the like, you need a desktop tower unit, but percentage-wise, how many Mac-users need that kind of expandability?”

Here was this amazingly compact machine (a PowerBook 5300) that I could carry around with one hand and park on my lap was capable of anything my desktop could do and more. Laptops were the logical Mac for most users I concluded.

I’ve hardly looked back since that epiphany. I did buy a couple of desktop Macs after that — a leftover brand-new UMAX SuperMac S900 that I just couldn’t resist at $300, and a G4 Cube that I still think is the best-looking desktop computer ever made, but which turned out to be still too much of a desktop machine for my taste. After a few months, I swapped it even for a year-old Pismo PowerBook that I still have and partly wrote this column on.

From the beginning of my tenure as a Mac Web columnist in 1997, I’ve vigorously advocated the laptop as the most suitable sort of computer choice for most people. There are certain sorts of computing for which a desktop machine’s raw power and expandability will be better-suited, but those are mostly high-end commercial applications, and not the sort of computing most of us do. The laptop is the real “computer for the rest of us.” Or at least it was, until a gadget called the iPad came out of seemingly nowhere and took the world by storm over the course of a few short months in 2010.

With the iPad phenomenon, prognostications of the desktop’s demise have gone mainstream, with some pundits suggesting that the traditional laptop may be on the bubble as well. Say what?! Not a comfortable notion for consummate laptop computer aficionados like me. And frankly, with the best objectivity I can muster, I can’t conceive of the laptop disappearing on the scene. Even Steve Jobs has conceded that the touchscreen tablet form factor is cumbersome for use with the screen in the vertical mode if you’re doing any sort of data entering. You can of course park the iPad in a stand, dock, or case that orients it vertically and use an external Bluetooth keyboard, but there’s still no mouse support, and reaching over the keyboard to manipulate the iPad’s touchscreen when it’s on a vertical plane is awkward and uncomfortable. Then there are the manifold shortcomings of the IOS compared with a full–featured operating system like Mac OS X, Windows, or Linux.

No disputing the iPad’s many virtues as a content consumption device, but for content creators and production users, the laptop remains a vastly superior solution.

However, that doesn’t mean laptops won’t be getting more tablet-like in the future. The hot–selling new MacBook air, especially the 11.6 inch model, is a bellwether for what’s likely to emerge as the dominant laptop type for general users. As Steve Jobs said last October, the new Air represents the future of laptop computing, and he’s probably correct. It doesn’t surprise me a whole lot that Apple laptop sales, especially after the turbo-boost they got with October’s release of the redesigned MacBook Air, were actually up in 2010, despite the iPad phenomenon.

Which brings us to the minor controversy over whether the iPad and other tablets should be considered PCs or not. Thus far, the two most widely cited IT market research firms, Gartner and IDG, have pointedly excluded the iPad and other tablets from their PC sales stats. reports, perhaps out of deference to some of their most important clients — PC-makers who are being hurt by the iPad’s ascendency in the marketplace. However, that’s a bit like King Canute ordering the tide not to rise (Incidentally, Canute intended that to be an object lesson to sycophancy).

However, last week the smaller UK-based Market Research firm Canalys broke ranks and included iPad and Samsung Galaxy Tab, et al. tablet sales in its latest PC market performance report, with Apple consequently climbing to third place in the PC sales stakes in Q4 2010 and bumping overall sector growth in the quarter to an impressive. Canalys is urging traditional PC vendors to accept the new market reality by recognizing ‘pads as an integral new component of the overall PC landscape.

“‘Pads gave consumers increased product choice over the holiday season,” commented Canalys Analyst Tim Coulling in a release. “While they do not appeal to first-time buyers or low-income households, they are proving extremely popular as additional computing devices.”

“‘Pads gave the market momentum in 2010, just as netbooks did the year before,” noted Canalys Senior Analyst Daryl Chiam.”We are encouraging vendors to plan for the future and not to remain stuck in the past.”

“Any argument that a ‘pad is not a PC is simply out of sync,” Chiam maintains. “With screen sizes of seven inches or above, ample processing power, and a growing number of applications, ‘pads offer a computing experience comparable to netbooks. They compete for the same customers and will happily coexist.”

I’m not so sure about the “happily” part, but coexist they will indeed be obliged to do. Tablets are not going to go away.

Nor would I want them to. As yet, I’m not convinced about touchscreen input, especially for serious content creation tasks, but I remain open-minded. Adding mouse driver support, real multitasking, a Finder directory environment, and USB I/O to the iPad would go a long way toward addressing my resistance, but at this stage of development, I’m not willing to give up on OS X and a real notebook computer.

But if an iPad serves your computing needs adequately, I’ve got no quarrel with that. Rock on! Just don’t be holding your breath anticipating the death of the laptop (or for that matter the desktop’s disappearance). As the man said, we can all coexist, and the optimum is to do it with a smile.

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