Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Laptops: an end of an era

Laptops started out as lightweight portable PCs, but have succumbed to stiff competition from the Smartphone, Tablet and Phone-Tablet (dubbed Phablet) alternatives.

The factors that have slowly taken the laptops close to their extinction are:
  1. Weight (although portable, lugging them over long distances is not comfortable.)
  2. Fragility (except for the rugged versions, most laptops cannot stand shocks)
  3. Upgrades (very minimal)
  4. Battery Backup (extremely low if compute power required is high defeating portability)
  5. Lifetime (3 years at best, but the next generation replacement is seldom as far ahead as the smartphone class.)
  6. Chargers (These are not standardized and vary heavily across brands and models.)
  7. Serviceability (Time consuming and subject to spare part availability)
  8. Thermal performance (Cooling has always been a challenge, with few laptops cutting that edge for those who can afford them.)
  9. Display (Graphics acceleration for several reasons has always been minimal, rendering them less useful for high-end applications like rendering.)
  10. Wireless Communication (Too few are provided with 3G making them less useful in remote environments)
  11. Recycling (the mechanical design is usually less susceptible to recycling, as is the display, input interfaces and storage - with the core motherboard also getting outdated far too quickly. This coupled with the short lifetime is making them less recycle-friendly.)
  12. Software (Operating Systems constantly requiring upgrades make the "Personal" computing part much costlier and less affordable across most available brands. This is also true of most application software used.)

The Actual Laptop Killers
Tablet Top Diversification Failure
It is quite strange that they have not yet been replaced by stronger alternatives. Touch Laptops or Touch PCs have been experimented in the market repeatedly only to fail for lack of intuitively designed applications. The very early Tablet Laptops which could be folded and written on with a stylus have now become obsolete for the same reasons as listed above. The convertible concepts that Asus and other companies have tried have also not really made it to the market primarily because of the cost involved in providing such flexibility.

Battery Technology Failure
Laptop cooling and Battery Technology have lagged behind in terms of development forcing power management technology to compensate. Unfortunately this trend has the side effect of reducing the actual compute power of any laptop. Not only do laptops face the danger of becoming obsolete resources for IT departments of most companies, their viability to be used as loosely coupled clusters (like desktop PCs) using Operating Systems like GNU/Linux has also been severely compromised.
Display Technology Failure
OLED and other devices have significantly improved visual quality while simultaneously impacting the life-time of the display device itself. Viewing angle has forced ergonomic problems forcing users to stay too close to the laptop screen enhancing conditions that result in myopia. Despite homogeneous refresh rates, different laptop screens do not refresh the frame at exactly 60fps causing a strain to anyone who attempts to use multiple displays.

Thermal Issues
Thermal Issues, as they keep increasing due to cooling mechanism failures usually end up in destroying many key components of the Laptop itself. The chief amongst these are the Audio, Motherboard, Touchpad.

When a laptop is subject to inadvertent shock, like bouncing it off the car door while getting out is sufficient to cause battery anomalies and even storage device failures. Laptops that can handle shock better are usually much heavier and less comfortable to being carried around.

Personal Opinion
From my personal experience, carrying a 2001 Compaq Laptop around the streets of Singapore was pain in the shoulders. Even today, unless absolutely necessary I avoid the laptop and rather switch to a Tablet that is much lighter to carry and offers the minimal necessary functionality. It seems to me that the portable PCs that Toshiba, Twinhead, Lenovo made are out of the market today which had the right form factor to be lugged around. That said, if you are willing to pay a  premium extremely small form factor laptops are still available in the market, but they don't really make the case against choosing a Tablet or a Phone-Tablet [e.g. Galaxy Note] over them.

Why does the market still exist?
If you are buying a laptop today, you are most likely avoiding a Desktop and just want something that is easier to move when you are migrating from one city/town to another. It is unlikely whether the original sense of portability remains any longer. The demand for these devices is notoriously low. Countries like India make them lucrative in educational institutions, although they are not put to much use even in these conditions for lack of wireless infrastructure or the absence of curriculum that is delivered through them.