Are we about to enter a golden era of mobile computing?

Laptop computers are about to undergo design revolutions that will redefine the world of portable computing.

lenovo thinkpad x1 foldable pc 2
Lenovo

I began covering the PC industry in 1981 and was one of the first professional analysts to study and chronicle the PC market. Over 38 years, the PC industry has produced close to $3 trillion in revenue and created a lot of wealth and jobs for people who create PC’s, PC software and services that support them.

At its height, the PC industry sold close to 380 million PCs a year. Demand for PC’s has decreased in the last 10 years, but PC makers still sell about 270 million PC’s and laptops each year worldwide. Today, the majority of personal computers sold are laptops and notebooks. While desktop computers are still made, they represent only about 20% of all PC’s shipped today. The real PC workhorses that fuel a much more mobile business lifestyle are notebooks and laptops that drive today’s productivity, education, entertainment and social media applications. 

I have watched the evolution of the laptop very closely over these 38 years. In fact, I was at CEBIT in 1985 when Toshiba introduced the first ever clamshell laptop, a design that the PC Industry embraced and has popularized for over three decades.

What is ironic about the clamshell design is that until 2012, there was very little innovation in terms of design changes to a clamshell form factor.

Beyond the ‘clamshell’…

The first break with traditional clamshells came in 2012 with the introduction of what Intel called “2 in 1’s.” These were fundamentally a tablet with a detachable keyboard. Wired called them “laplet’s” at the time. Some called them “hybrids." 

Being able to break the stronghold of the clamshell design was partly due to Microsoft’s newest OS that added pen and touch support and other features that came out to support their first Surface hybrids in this same year. 

One could argue that Apple forced this design revolution with the introduction of the iPad in 2010, that also included a detachable keyboard, and a touch UI, but its focus was on being a tablet, not a laptop replacement like the 2 in 1’s were from the beginning. 

Since the 2 in 1’s emerged, there has been a lot of experimentation in the area of portable computing. We have seen dozens of hybrids and 2 in 1’s in many form factors and designs. Laptops have also become thinner and lighter. However, these types of mobile computers have not really caught on. They represent no more 10-15% of all laptops and notebooks sold today.

The ’Golden Era’ is here

If you take a historical look at the trends in portable computers, from 1985 to 2012 would be called the clamshell era. From 2012-2020, could be seen as the hybrid era.  Now, as we are about to enter a new decade, we are about to see what one might call a “Golden Era” of mobile computing as the advances in technology components are accelerating. Over the next decade, mobile computer makers will have a host of new technologies to work with, from new battery chemistry that could power a laptop for a week, to new low voltage semiconductors that have enough power to deliver 3D holographic images to mobile screens. Portable computers will handle AR and VR user interfaces and applications and, work with glasses that could transform the mobile computing experience altogether. 

And over the next three years we should see a perfecting of foldable screens that could be used in laptops as well as smartphones.

In early example of a foldable laptop was introduced by Lenovo a few weeks back. Tentatively named the ThinkPad X1 Foldable, it sports a 13 “screen that folds in half. 

Lenovo showed this to me recently and I got to test it out and while it is still a prototype, it is well designed, and they solved one of the biggest problems with any foldable devices. The have developed patented hinges that move with the fold and makes it possible for the screen seams to stay in place no matter how many times you fold it during its life. The quality of this device is excellent since it was designed by Lenovo’s Yamoto team that created the ThinkPad line of laptops. 

There is not date for its release yet, and most other laptop vendors are working on similar models that could debut at CES in January. 

While the folding screens themselves are still a work in progress and may take a few years to perfect its manufacturing process, Lenovo has given us a glimpse of the future of portable computing and which, along with the new advances in technology mentioned above, could make the next decade the golden era of portable computing.

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