Mike Elgan: Why you'll buy a two-screen laptop

Why carry a mobile device with one screen when two screens make it twice as nice?

I predicted more than two years ago that dual-screen laptops would dominate the category within five years. Halfway to the deadline, Acer this week unveiled a workable and exciting two-screen laptop called the Acer Iconia.

The Iconia is the first clamshell dual-screen notebook that I'm aware of from a mainstream company. The laptop itself is the real deal. Powered by an Intel Core i5 processor and 4GB of DDR3 RAM, the Windows 7 Home Premium laptop supports the 3.0 versions of both Bluetooth and USB.

It's heavy at 6.2 pounds. And two screens drain the battery. Acer claims 3 hours of battery life. Worse, it's not replaceable, which may be the laptop single worst "feature."

Acer Iconia
Acer's Iconia, the first mainstream dual-screen laptop, was unveiled this week. The company has not yet announced pricing or availability.

What's great about the Iconia, however, is what Acer has done with the second screen. One screen is built into the lid where a laptop screen normally goes, and the other one is built into the base where the keyboard usually sits. Each screen measures 14 inches diagonally.

The screens operate together, with the top screen behaving like any other laptop screen, and the bottom doing special-purpose tasks, like providing a virtual keyboard or special-purpose dashboards.

In one mode, the bottom screen acts as a continuation of the top screen. For example, a Web page or a document spans from the top of the top screen to the bottom of the bottom screen. This mode appears automatically depending on the application.

Another mode brings up an application called the Social Jogger, which places a dashboard of activity several social networking sites on the bottom screen. Tapping on things brings opens them in the top screen.

The application Scrapbook provides a free-form multi-touch bottom-screen place to layout your pictures. By tapping on them, you can edit or send them using applications that open on the top screen.

Hot or not?

The initial reaction by the usual suspects (gadget bloggers, columnists, miscellaneous tech pundits) focuses on the inferiority of an on-screen keyboard for typing. And, of course, for regular writing, that's probably true. However, laptops are about tradeoffs. You have to choose between biggest screen and smallest size, most power and longest battery life, most power and lowest price.

The two-screen option will simply give us another trade-off to consider. I believe the second screen will prove to be a worthwhile choice, for two reasons. First, screen real estate is worth its weight in gold for productivity and all around usefulness. And second, a physical keyboard is trivially easy and cheap to add as an option. When you really need to type, just whip out a Bluetooth keyboard and go for it. It's easy to get two screens and a real keyboard. No big deal.

Plus, I find it amazing that after all these years I still have to work hard to defend the acceptability of on-screen keyboards. Just look at recent history.

When the iPhone came out, naysayers said a tiny on-screen keyboard was unusable. Today, the iPhone is the top selling smartphone handset, and most of its Android competition also uses onscreen keyboards.

When the iPad came out, critics argued that they wouldn't make a dent in the netbook market because people need a physical keyboard. Today, the netbook market is being decimated by the touch-tablet market, which the iPad dominates.

The same thing will happen with laptops. Today, people can't imagine using an on-screen keyboard. But very soon, they will become shockingly popular.

Why Iconia is a Fail for Microsoft

The Iconia's user interface is real multi-touch, registering input from 10 fingers simultaneously. When you form your hand into a claw and touch five fingers at the same time on the bottom screen, the gesture conjures up a circular dial that gives you the option to open various interfaces. Placing both palms on the bottom screen brings up the on-screen keyboard.

In the vacuum created by Microsoft's abandonment of user interface leadership, Acer has been forced to create an entire gesture library. Acer says they'll release a software development kit (SDK) next month to encourage third-party development.

This form-factor should be supported by Windows 7 right out of the box, and flipped on by the laptop maker. The SDK should be Microsoft's. The initiative should be Microsoft's.

Acer's done a great job. But we really need the entire PC software industry focused on this. The problem with leadership coming from a hardware maker is that other makers are going to embrace the same standards. We need universal gestures for touch computing, not a separate set for every vendor.

Why Apple will ship a dual-screen MacBook

During Apple's Back to the Mac event in October, CEO Steve Jobs dissed touch-screen laptops, saying: "We've done tons of user testing on this, and it turns out it doesn't work. Touch surfaces don't want to be vertical."

Right you are, Steve. That's why Apple will do what Acer has done, and use the bottom screen in the dual-screen MacBooks of the future as the touch control surface. Apple's trend has been to grow the size of the trackpads, and make them with glass surfaces. The next step is to transform the entire bottom of the laptop into a multi-touch trackpad.

Dual-screen laptops fit into all of Apple's major design agendas. Apple believes in minimizing moving parts. Apple believes in on-screen touch screens. Apple believes in maximizing screen real-estate.

I believe there is simply no way Apple will fail to ship a dual-screen laptop within the next three years.

I didn't think Acer would be the first company to demonstrate a dual-screen clamshell laptop. And I'm certain they won't be the last. This is the form-factor of the future -- a future now so close you can almost touch it.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike's List.

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