Analyst Opinion – When I think about the perfect notebook I often think back to the Science Fiction series Earth: Final Conflict. This series, created by Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, did not envision people carrying notebook computers. People carried a device called a Global Communicator, which was a blend of a global phone, a tablet computer, a GPS, a video camera and a thin client device. Perhaps Rodenberry had the right idea and the Global Communicator is exactly what we will get within a few years.
Two things made the Global Communicator especially practical: It had a flexible screen so that the device was about the size of an iPhone when collapsed and could be expanded to the size of an UMPC for computing. The other great feature was a voice and touch interface, which enabled the user to get around the lack of a keyboard, but – you will notice this when watching the show – when characters needed to do lots of writing, the Global Communicators defaulted to what appeared to be cloud based terminals with full keyboards.
Basically, the perfect notebook would be one that is always with you and constantly both connected and powered. If we aren’t online, we are unable to get work done with communications and collaboration ever more important to our jobs and tasks. It also needs to have a pervasive affordable service. 3G is pervasive, but not affordable enough and too slow for many. Wi-Fi is not pervasive enough and often not secure enough either. This suggests WiMax may be the best blend, if it is successful. Cisco has a concept called “Visual Networking”, which may set the bar with regard to what adequate network performance should be, because we are increasingly using these devices for high bandwidth visual content.
The device must blend portability with usability and currently we are searching for the right balance of screen size and portability. The iPhone is probably pushing the limits as to how big a device – that is always with you – can be while the Asus Eee PC is probably exceeding the limit for how small a laptop can become: There is still a substantial gap between the devices. This gap may be closed by modularizing the solution (The Redfly Mobile Companion is an example of this), or by using flexible screen and voice input technology – like the imaginary “Global” mentioned above. A device that isn’t portable and useful remains too limited to become the perfect solution.
The device also must be secure: Passwords don’t cut it, because they are too easy to crack. This means that such a device probably shouldn’t contain much data and the data they do contain must be protected. Access to the device should be biometric in nature.
Power needs to be adequate for a service day at a minimum off power. This is a power availability problem and could be achieved by providing better power access, which could come through a variety of means including fuel cells, broadcast power, solar cells, power holsters, or a blend of technologies including those already mentioned. But the perfect notebook shouldn’t require the user to carry a power brick and be tied to wall plugs.
Software and services
Assuming the hardware is done right, the perfect notebook is always connected and pulls the vast majority of its data and applications from the cloud. These resources are dynamically allocated based on need and, to keep the device small, at least some of the processing power the product has isn’t in the device at all but also in the cloud. Existing solutions like NComputing, Clear Cube, and the HP Compaq 6720t mobile thin client notebook (in the future, HP will have product names you actually can remember) are all potential examples of how this could be done.
Basically this is the virtualization of much of the notebook’s capability in a cloud/thin client model, which provides several benefits: Software updates are done remotely and usually by the service provider; data is secured and protected at and by the service provider; a lost or stolen phone is worthless; performance can be provided based on need; hardware upgrades largely happen at the service provider and reliability is more similar to a phone than a current PC. The downside is that all of this hinges on the availability and quality of the network connection which, while improved, isn’t yet where it needs to be.
Even more important, the information and applications need to be made available to any device you are likely to need and on those rare occasions where you might be disconnected. In the near term, this is closer to Apple MobileMe, SugerSync, or Microsoft Live Mesh, but eventually this becomes much closer to the vision Larry Ellison and Scott McNealy had with the original Thin Client concept.
This also suggests a pricing model for the applications and services that is similar to Microsoft Equipt’s subscription.
The perfect notebook/smartphone/personal device
In the end, my perfect notebook really isn’t a notebook at all. It is a device closer to Gene Roddenberry’s Global Communicator and connected to an always available service – which is what the real value is. It is always powered, always connected and as reliable and portable as a cell phone. Just like today’s kids look at typewriters and wonder how folks possibly lived without a notebook computer or cell phone, kids of the future are likely to look at our notebooks today as ancient technology where the only thing amazing was that people were able to live and work with them.
Rob Enderle is one of the last Inquiry Analysts. Inquiry Analysts are paid to stay up to date on current events and identify trends and either explain the trends or make suggestions, tactical and strategic, on how to best take advantage of them. Currently he provides his services to most of the major technology and media companies.