Two of the biggest buzzwords in mobile computing right now (besides iPhone and Android) are Tablet Computing and Netbooks. Many people expect one of them to be the successor to laptops. I don’t think it will be quite that simple.
Modern tablet computing designs are really all based on Allan Kay’s 1968 Dynabook design. While never constructed, it’s almost obvious design has influenced many companies to make desktops and laptops that are controlled via a touchscreen. PDA’s and smartphones also follow this basic design closely, though I wouldn’t really consider these devices to be tablet computers.
A few laptops manufacturers offer a tablet variant of a laptop. One of the most popular is Lenovo’s X Series. It’s a regular laptop minus some modifications to allow for a touch display and a special hinge system. All the power of a laptop with the convenience (and cool factor) of a touch screen.
The downsides of this are obvious. Laptops aren’t that light, they are power hungry and have moving parts (hard drives in particular). They also don’t come cheap.
Netbooks have gained considerable ground in the past year. A netbook is really no different than a typical laptop except it’s smaller, lighter, more power efficient (thanks to a slower power efficient cpu and smaller screen) and cheaper. By focusing on a handful of terminal activities such as browsing the web and email they can scale back on most of the fancy hardware.
One of the most popular Netbooks is the ASUS Eee PC. It’s advantages over a typical laptop are it’s low cost, small size, and weight.
The downsides here are speed, small screen and small keyboard.
CPU’s have advanced significantly in the past few years. One of the most obvious changes is multiple cores. Another less obvious but equally important evolution is power efficiency thanks to a new breed of chips like the Intel Atom.
Touchscreens have gotten significantly better. The most obvious is the iPhone’s capacitive touchscreen. As opposed to resistive touchscreens and a stylus the ability to handle multitouch revolutionizes the interface.
Solid State Storage (SSD) has also dropped in price and increased in availability. This means that storage is faster, consumes less power and more reliable in a mobile device than previous hard drive technology would allow.
Users have also evolved in computer usage. Several years ago almost everyone used an email client. Now many are using webmail only thanks to improved interfaces. Even spreadsheets and office documents can be handled with a web interface. The need for client side computing is becoming less of a necessity for many people. Wireless networks have only sped this up.
I suspect that due to these current trends tablets and netbooks will blur and move towards a new category of ultraportable computing. Obviously just small evolutionary changes could drastically change this but that’s how I interpret the current trends.
Apple today offers laptops with dual GPU’s to save power and allow for higher performance by selecting the GPU. I suspect it’s even possible to eventually see dual CPU’s where one could be selected for performance, and another for better power consumption (great for when just browsing the web).
I suspect the rumor of an Apple tablet coming Q3 will fall largely along these lines and accelerate the merge between tablet computing and netbooks. Time will tell.