The Failure of Portable Computing

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted on the site and I appreciate all the support I’ve received thus far. It’s been about a year since I started doing Random Digital Musings and it’s been pretty therapeutic for me to give birth to new ideas and opinions. I look forward to continuing the site — I think there are exciting times ahead as technology decides what becomes of the iPod now that the product line is a bit over-segmented, what becomes of Vista now that the market seems to have responded with a resounding, “we’re not impressed” and with the PS3 now that the Wii has demonstrated (despite it’s name) that mainstream gaming isn’t a dream, but a reality. These are a few of the topics that I look forward to covering — God willing — in the coming months…. -devron


Back in May when Palm announced that it was releasing the Foleo, the technology world took notice. For one, Palm had been taking a pretty predictable and uninspired course over the past few years — considerably different from it’s inspired beginnings, bringing us the Palm Pilot and creating what is probably regarded the first widely accepted PDA platform. The company appeared to be content with simply pushing out new Treos — and even those were starting to see only incremental, uninspired updates. The Foleo was initially attacked a bit by the mainstream press (including by the Engadget editors) as a device that didn’t quite make sense. But to me it made perfect sense.

Laptops have really gotten away from their original intent — (or at least I believe so). Laptops were meant to be portable representations of desktop based PCs. While they’ve been successful in porting the same power as their desktop counterparts, often this comes at a cost. Only the most expensive laptops are small enough and can be considered truly portable to the point where their presence in your office briefcase is unnoticeable. You would think that over time, laptops would have decreased in size dramatically — and they have. But perhaps not at the rate that I believe they should have. Laptops at this point should be no heavier than 3 pounds — 5 pounds max.

It’s easy to blame almost anything that’s wrong with tech on Microsoft, but in this case, I think it’s rather appropriate. Hardware manufacturers are trying to build notebook/laptop computers to keep pace with the growing demand for high visual requirements. We’ve seen with Vista that the visual enhancements brought forth by “a desktop background that has a moving image” and features like “Flip 3D” and Aero Glass come with moderate visual impact and very little gain in functionality to the user.

I think Microsoft could have impacted this course that laptops have taken by implementing a more streamlined version of Windows under the “Vista Business Edition” moniker. There’s no reason why a business version of Vista should run slower than Windows XP. I think they should have created a separate development team, focused on minimizing the OS to a “business basic” form factor with only the most relevant features. (Sure, I know that’s easier said than done. But if this had been the focus of the dev team — an OS that requires minimal RAM, runs efficiently, and is more stable because it’s designed to prioritize stability over features — we might not be talking about Vista as such a failure right now in the court of public opinion.)

I think that laptops should be broken out into two totally different categories — each with a distinct core purpose.

The first type of laptop is represented largely by what we see when we walk in any Best Buy today: a desktop alternative. This is effectively a machine that is nearly as powerful as almost any full-size desktop. When I am consulting customers regarding the purchase of new PCs, increasingly people are demanding the need for a laptop over a desktop. Often when I inquire further about why aren’t considering a cheaper, more upgradable desktop that would be significantly easier to fix (when they will eventually approach me about a repair), their response is often the same: “Hey, I don’t really want to talk about it. I just know that I want a laptop.” The mainstream market doesn’t really know why they want a laptop other than the fact that for most, it’s sexy to be able to move around with what is effectively a shrinked-down tower-PC. The sad truth is that most people don’t even make use of the computing power — much less the portability. (I know a few people who have laptops that only see the light of day less than 10 times a year. When I go to move the laptop, I see the dust spot formed around the area where the laptop always sits….. or the “snap” as I detach the laptop from the footprint where it’s probably been sitting for the past few months.) I’m sure there are a majority of users who do take their laptops everywhere they go. (I see them on the NYC transit system every day.) When I think if this, I am reminded of the flashy HP commercials that show Venus Williams, Pharrell Williams and others swishing their hands about and talking about their digital life.

On the other end of the equation lies what I think Palm was trying to emulate with the Foleo: a minimal, low power consuming, long battery-life having, 2-to-3 pound desktop counterpart. During these same consulting visits of mine, when I further inquire about the way that the customer intends to use the PC, the answers are almost always the same. It usually breaks down into the same four areas:

  1. Browsing the web
  2. Media on the go (Movies/Music)
  3. E-mail access
  4. Document creation

With the exception of number two, these are all tasks that don’t require the unbelievable amount of computer power that we’re getting when we buy most portable PCs. As matter of fact, with the exception of number two, these can all be achieved on a old Intel 486 based processor created over fifteen years ago if the applications are developed efficiently.) I can browse the web with my iPhone, or using my Nokia 770 — and these are devices with power that is dwarfed by that of a current generation dual core Intel processor. Mobile users could browse the web on a portable device and have a great experience as long as the device has support for Flash and other standards that allow accessibility to most sites.

Document editing and creation fall into almost the same category. Despite the fact that MS Office continues to grow to monstrous sizes to justify a cost upwards of $300, the needs are basic: document and spreadsheet creation/editing, a database program of some sort, e-mail and a presentation application. I think Office is moving completely in the wrong direction for business customers. Technology analysts often refer to the notion that with all of the advances and new features that MS Office and other ambitious applications bring about, most of us only make practical use of about 10% of the features. In a question inspired by my earlier challenge regarding Vista, why isn’t Microsoft (and for that matter, Apple with OS X) releasing a faster and more efficient version of their productivity suite with a small footprint that enables business users to have access to only the core features that they’ll need?

E-mail access is probably the least demanding of all. And considering the fact that most of my contact’s e-mail domains these days usually end in “@gmail.com”, “@yahoo.com”, or “@hotmail.com”, you probably can get away with using a web-based client and having a small, feature-deficient e-mail client similar to a “Eudora Lite” and still provide a compelling experience.

Of the four features mentioned, perhaps “media on the go” requires the most power. But I’d say that even that can be achieved with minimal resources. Many laptops have an OS-independent mode that allows the user to play DVDs without having to completely boot up Windows. (It’s really quite impressive — you can power on and be in this mode in about 10 seconds.) You’ll find that many portable DVD players in Best Buy cost about $170 – $300 with screens that don’t rival even the cheapest $299 laptop. And if your portable machine can play movies, music and pictures are an obvious subset.

My theory doesn’t really take into account video games. Most gamers need every bit of the CPU, Ram and display resolution that a $3000 laptop can offer. However, I would argue that for most mainstream PC users, their gaming needs don’t require nearly this amount of power. When I look at the games that most mobile phone and laptop users play (Zuma, Peggle, Tetris and other Pop-Cap games, Sudoku, word scramble games and, of course, Solitaire and Free Cell) there’s no need for any high level video rendering, pixel shading, anti-aliasing, z-buffering, etc.

It baffles the mind that technology companies have not capitalized on this huge untapped market segment. This small form factor “desktop counterpart” that I’m talking about should be about $250 – $600 max. I envision this as the compliment to a larger desktop based PC, where the user would bring the small PC counterpart home, dock it and it would synch the documents folder with the big PC. And given my observation of most mainstream user’s computing habits, they could probably get away with this counterpart being their sole PC.

When I take my weekly “pleasure stroll” through Best Buy, often the laptop department leaves me scratching my head. The large machines with 15.4 inch displays range in price from $399 – $1500. However, the smaller-form factor PCs — the ones that weigh 2-to-4 pounds and have displays of either 12.1 or 14.1 inches are significantly more expensive — ranging from around $1200 – $1900. Now, I completely understand why the pricing breaks down the way it does… Smaller components are harder to produce and require more engineering to squeeze the components into a smaller form factor. But it also speaks to the same problem I pointed to earlier. For laptop creators, there is a minimum level of requirements that the PC will require in order to run any version of Windows. And the release of Vista has only made these requirements more demanding.

What many people have done to fill this mobile need is to try and substitute laptops with handheld devices (like smart phones and PDAs) — and with this choice comes an entirely different set of problems. As much as I adore my iPhone, it’s not exactly the best device for entering data — nor will it ever be. As long as we’re a keyboard-driven society (and that’s a totally different discussion) devices like the iPhone aren’t going to solve the problem of needing to take notes at a meeting or the need to edit large amounts of e-mail. For that matter, nor will the Blackberry be this sole device. I would argue that the Blackberry’s OS has improved, but is not at the level that is needed to be the sole device that we need on the go. For devices like these, the form factor is simply too small. They are meant to be quick views into our lives. I whip out my iPhone to check the weather, or the time, or to see my calendar, or to set a quick alarm before I take a nap, or to check the baseball scores. I can’t expect this device to be able to provide a compelling movie watching experience or be able to take effective notes on it in a meeting. It simply isn’t designed with these tasks in mind.

Sadly, I think the Foleo was on to something before they were scared away by the comments of influential folks like Peter Rojas and Ryan Block (both of who I really admire and credit for inspiring me to do what I do on this site.) While many focused on the shortcomings of the device (5-hour battery life, works in conjunction with a Palm, $500 cost — which is more than a base-level Dell or HP laptop with infinitely more power), I saw the promise of what they were trying to do. See, the device was made for people like me. People who don’t want to worry about accidentally dropping their bag and causing damage to their $1500 device. People who would like to be able to pull out a laptop on the train, document a few thoughts, respond to a few e-mails, perhaps watch a movie, listen to music, browse a set of cached web pages and maybe even read an eBook. We want to be able to take this all-in-one device into a board room, plug in a display projector via USB and navigate through the slideshow.

So, with Vista being the standard that is sold on most new PCs and Palm having announced the cancel/delay of it’s Foleo, it appears that there is no hope in sight, right? I mean, what can we do given the fact that we know what it is we want?? I’m glad you asked. Check back in a few days when I post what I believe to be concept that could revolutionize the portable computing space for the next 3-to-5 years.


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