What the laptop of the future will look like

Notebook vendors should pay more attention to their enterprise customers, says Gabriel Vitus, IT director of the Vancouver-based Certified General Accountants Association of Canada.

“Not only on the big issues, but also on the little things,” he says. “Like button placement.”

Even today, many CIOs feel that too many notebooks have batteries that conk out in the middle of a job, weigh too much, or fail to keep critical information secure.

“There’s plenty of room for improvement,” Vitus says. Yet as 2008 dawns, CIOs have some reason for optimism. Notebook makers are prioritizing improvements to design, storage, and displays that could make the notebooks of 2011 quite different than the workhorses of today.

“Notebooks are rapidly evolving and improving,” says Rob Enderle, principal analyst of the Enderle Group consultancy. Does a three-pound laptop that runs some eight hours sound good to you?

Then you may like the machines of 2011. If one company has its way, you may also be able to use those machines for quick e-mails and Web browsing without firing up Windows.

The Obesity Problem

Like a growing percentage of the US population, notebooks face an obesity crisis. Vendors must respond to increasing performance demands while keeping their products from inflating to unacceptable dimensions.

To balance the parameters of weight and size, batter life, durability, security and performance, notebook vendors must work as carefully and precisely as a Swiss watchmaker. And to counter bloat, vendors are looking to lighter materials, more highly integrated components and new space-saving design approaches.

“Design is an overarching trend,” says Enderle. “Dell has tripled the size of its design staff,” he says, adding that Lenovo and Toshiba will continue to stand out among mobile vendors known for cutting-edge designs.

“Design is becoming a key battlefield, and buyers will ultimately benefit by receiving more powerful and compact notebooks,” Enderle says.

What kind of design changes are we talking about? Look for more case colors, more metals, sleeker designs, brighter displays, better speakers, better integrated cameras, quieter fans, lighted keyboards, secondary displays and more exotic screen hinges, Enderle says.

At the same time, a storage revolution promises to attack several notebook problems, including weight, speed and power drain, says Richard Shim, a notebook analyst at IDC. “Solid state drives — flash memory — will change notebooks by providing a medium that’s faster, less fragile and more power friendly,” he says.

During the next few years, solid state technology’s biggest challenges — its high cost and relatively low capacity (the current ceiling is about 64GB per solid state drive) — should fade away, Shim says. “The benefits will be enormous,” he says. “By getting rid of spinning hard drives, you will both boost the seek time and save energy.”

Within three years, about 15 percent of enterprise-class notebooks will have pure solid state drives, predicts Jack E. Gold, president and principal analyst of J. Gold Associates, a technology strategy consulting firm.

“The rest will slowly transition to hybrid drives, where you have magnetics but also a front-end solid state component to speed them up, which also helps power management,” he says.

A New Display

Just as solid state memory could transform notebook storage, OLED (organic light emitting diode) displays could radically change the way users look at their systems. But this technology looks to be a bit further out.

Compared to conventional LCDs, organic displays are thinner, brighter and less power hungry. The technology already serves a niche market — small, high-quality displays for mobile phones and media players. Notebook-sized 10- to 12-inch organic display prototypes shown by Sony in early 2007 offer an eye-pleasing 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio.

Because organic displays emit light rather than reflect it, the screens provide significantly better outdoor viewing than most current notebook LCDs, which wash out in sunlight.

Flexible organic displays are also more or less unbreakable, says Robert Street, a senior research fellow at the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). “That would be a huge benefit in notebooks, especially in ruggedized models,” he notes.

The problem is, manufacturers haven’t figured out how to affordably mass-produce them yet. (In October 2007, Sony announced an 11-inch OLED TV display, priced at about Rs 68,000 (US$1,710).
Building affordable organic displays into notebooks will require transforming laboratory techniques into affordable processes for volume production.

“We think that an inkjet printing-based approach shows great promise,” Street says. He says it may be only a couple or years before the first notebooks featuring organic displays begin appearing on the market. Some notebook vendors say the wait for OLED’s debut may be more like four years.

Energy Crisis

Dim displays can be annoying. But poor battery life may be the biggest gripe among notebook users today — and unfortunately, there’s no brilliant new battery technology waiting in the wings.

Why are notebook users so cranky about batteries? For starters, while battery technology has progressed markedly over the past several years, powerful microprocessors, wireless transceivers and other enhanced components have more than gobbled up those energy gains.

Lithium ion remains the current gold standard for notebook batteries, and notebook makers say they’re not expecting a successor that supplies more notebook power without driving up system weight or size anytime soon.

Instead, today’s notebook makers are focusing on other power-saving techniques, such as intelligently throttling back the power to various notebook components.

“I’m not anticipating any significant change in battery technology in the foreseeable future,” says Brett McAnally, senior manager of Dell’s Latitude notebook PC product group.

“To provide longer battery life, we’ll have to look toward optimizing devices by analyzing user behavior and saving power consumption wherever we can,” he says. “Right now, that’s the best approach.”

Stepping Up Security

On the security side, most CIOs still live in fear of lost notebooks. But that’s changing, as encryption and options like fingerprint readers become easier to manage and more powerful.

Xavier Lauwaert, VAIO product manager for notebook maker Sony Electronics, predicts a growing number of notebooks shipping in the next few years incorporating advanced biometric devices, such as voice-recognition systems and webcam-based retina scanners.

“Enterprises that handle a lot of private information, such as banks and insurance companies, will consider these technologies a rather inexpensive investment when compared to the risks involved,” he says.

Companies such as Absolute Software already offer Computrace, a ‘LoJack for Laptops’ type service; this helps enterprises track down, lock-up and recover errant notebooks by tracing IP addresses transmitted by stolen machines.

Phoenix Technologies, best known for supplying BIOS software to PC vendors, wants to take the LoJack approach to the next level. Its new FailSafe notebook management system, which notebook makers can embed into the PC’s core firmware, helps track, control and recover lost or stolen notebooks.

Users can encrypt, lock and even destroy data on lost laptops to protect sensitive or private information.

“The idea is not only that you can locate, very quickly, a stolen notebook, but wipe its hard drive clean,” Enderle says. “By putting the code in BIOS, that makes it even more difficult to remove, or even know it’s there.” Look for FailSafe in notebooks starting in mid-2008, Phoenix says.

Perhaps even more intriguing, Phoenix is pushing embedded virtualization technology for laptops that it calls HyperSpace: this technology would let notebook users boot up in seconds and use applications such as e-mail, a media player and a Web browser without firing up Windows.

(If you’ve ever used an Apple MacBook that powers up in seconds, you know how appealing this sounds, compared to waiting for Windows to load.) Phoenix hopes the first laptops to with HyperSpace embedded in them will appear in 2008.

‘Out There’ Ideas

Overall, enterprise notebook vendors tend to have one trait in common with CIOs: they treat new technologies conservatively. That means some much-discussed ideas take years to actually crack into enterprise machines. What notebook technologies remain stuck in neutral?

“People still talk about fuel cell [batteries], and there are still quite a few companies that think they’ll put fuel cells into notebooks within the next few years,” Gold says. But he doesn’t believe that notebook users are exactly anxious to begin carrying vials of volatile liquids in their pockets and briefcases. “That’s still kind of ‘out there’,” he says.

This suits CIOs including Vitus just fine. “We’re simply looking for affordable notebooks that allow us to work more efficiently and productively,” he says. “We’ll leave the gee-whiz to somebody else.”

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