Even today, many techies feel that too many laptops have batteries that conk out in the middle of a job, weigh too much, or fail to keep critical information secure. Yet as 2008 dawns, laptop users have some reason for optimism.
Manufacturers are prioritising improvements to design, storage, and displays that could make the laptops 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 8 hours sound good to you? Then you may like the machines of 2011.
Your Laptop in 2011
What might laptops look like in three years? Here's the vision from Kevin Wrenn, senior vice president of PC business operations for Fujitsu Computer Systems: "The ideal notebook in three years will weigh three pounds, offer a 14in screen [and] deliver eight hours of battery life," he says.
That may sound like a pretty bold prediction, even for thin and light notebooks. But analysts like Jack Gold, president and principal analyst of J Gold Associates, a technology strategy consulting firm, concur. "You will see thin and light machines-three pounds or less-with battery life of 8-plus hours for road warriors," Gold says.
Integrated support for wide area wireless technologies, such as WiMax or another type of Wireless wide area network (WWAN), will also be standard, Wrenn says. "Integrated WWAN will be a must," he says. "Fees and costs will begin to go down and WWAN will become the industry norm."
On the storage front, Wrenn believes that hard drive capacity will soar beyond 300GB and solid state drives will surpass 100GB. "Once ubiquitous wireless is achieved, online storage will gain in popularity," he predicts.
Laptop operating times will be extended through enhanced resource management combined with slightly higher capacity battery cells. "By doing this effectively, we are able to turn off devices when not needed, thus saving power and reducing heat," Wrenn notes. "Expect this trend to continue, but in addition we will see battery capacity creep up in ratings."
Wrenn believes that the transition from square to rectangular 'widescreen' displays will be all but completed by 2009. But flexible OLED displays are at least four years away for large displays in laptops, predicts Wrenn.
And what will such a dream machine cost? "When have you ever known [laptop] prices to increase?" is Wrenn's response. "Initially, pricing will be high for some of these items," he predicts. "But, as always, they will reduce [in cost] and find their way into the mainstream."
The Obesity Problem
Like a growing percentage of the 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, battery life, durability, security and performance, laptop 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 colours, 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. "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 View: OLED
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 12in 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. (Last October, Sony announced an 11in OLED TV display, priced at about £900.)
Building affordable organic displays into laptops 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 of 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.
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 laptop 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 laptops makers are focusing on other power-saving techniques, such as intelligently throttling back the power to various laptops 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 optimising devices by analysing user behaviour and saving power consumption wherever we can," he says. "Right now, that's the best approach."
Stepping Up Security
On the security side, most IT managers 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 businesses 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 virtualisation technology for laptops that it calls HyperSpace: this technology would let notebook users boot up in seconds and use applications such as email, 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.
Fuel Cells: Out There
Overall, notebook vendors tend to treat new technologies conservatively. That means some much-discussed ideas take years to actually make it into laptops. What laptop 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."