Elgan: The '$100 laptop' may be a glimpse of the future

No, not the price, unfortunately. I'm talking about the new all-screen clamshell.

You've no doubt heard of the "$100 laptop" project. The idea is to help poor kids around the world by providing them with simple, durable, usable and wireless laptops for downloading and using textbooks and educational software, playing games and communicating.

The first iteration, the XO 1.0 -- a.k.a. the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) laptop -- looks like a toy for baby aliens (fluorescent green with two antennas). Besides a few innovations, including mesh networking and a water-resistant rubberized keyboard, the laptop is largely comparable to today's ordinary low-cost laptops.

A prototype of the next version was unveiled last month, and it looks a lot like the laptop you're going to buy in five years. No, I'm not kidding. Your laptop will look and function more or less like the XO 2.0. It's a brilliant -- and prescient -- design.

The most conspicuous and best feature is that the bottom half of the clamshell is a screen, just like the top half. Here's what it looks like.

I've talked to a lot of readers and other users who say they'll never give up the tactile feedback of a real keyboard and many who don't want to let go of the mouse, either. But I believe most users will be willing to sacrifice both keyboard and mouse in order to take advantage of the all-screen laptop of the future.

The XO 2.0 clamshell form factor works in four ways (compared to just one with conventional laptops).

1. Tablet mode. By opening the clamshell all the way, the two screens snap together in the middle to form one semicontinuous touch screen.

2. Laptop mode. By laying the bottom flat and setting the top half at an angle, the bottom becomes the keyboard and touchpad, and the top functions as the screen, just like a conventional laptop, but the keyboard is on-screen and virtual.

3. Book mode. When you the hold up the XO 2.0 like a book, the text can be displayed on two "pages," which can be "turned" virtually.

4. Two-person mode. By setting the laptop open and flat like "tablet mode," but pressing an on-screen button, one screen orients up and the other down. If you set it on a table between two people, they both get their own properly oriented touch screen, which is great for games or any other two-person usage applications.

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The different modes of the next-gen OLPC laptop. (Photos courtesy of One Laptop per Child)

With today's desktops, software and usage models, the two-screen clamshell design of the XO 2.0 laptop may not appeal. But in five years, I believe everyone will intuitively understand why this is the best possible way to design a mobile computer because of four current trends and where they're taking us.

Trend No. 1: Multitouch, physics and gestures, oh my!

I've reported and prognosticated extensively in this space on the next generation or "third generation" of user interface (the first two generations being the command line and the graphical user interface).

This new user interface will dominate the operating systems from Microsoft, Apple, the Linux vendors and others. There will be qualitative differences, as always, in the next-gen versions of Windows, the Mac OS and Linux, but all will revolve around the three core elements: multitouch, gestures and physics. That's why I'm now calling this UI type the multitouch, physics and gestures UI, or MPG for short.

We've already seen all three of these elements in the iPhone, in Microsoft Surface and also in the demo of Windows 7.

This radical departure will, after several decades, render obsolete today's desktop form factor of a screen, keyboard and mouse on the desk. In fact, it will make the keyboard optional and the mouse obsolete forever.

As I've described, the desktop PC of the future will be used at an angle, like a drafting table (but can pivot to vertical "presentation mode" or horizontal "desk mode") like this. This form factor will be dictated by the software, just as the current mouse-centric form factor was dictated by the GUI.

But what about mobile computers? One thing is clear about MPG user interfaces: Big screens are very desirable, and touch rules. The XO 2.0 concept maximizes screen real estate during use and minimizes size for transport. The XO 2.0 is designed for low cost, and the screens are small. But for business users, the MPG laptops of the future will be much larger. If you can jam a laptop with a 17-in. screen into your carry-on luggage, the all-screen clamshell will fold out to double that for using Windows 7 with your fingers.

The reason you'll want to do this is that you'll become totally accustomed on your Windows 7 desktop to the MPG UI, virtual keyboards and interacting with touch instead of a mouse. And future applications will fully support this mode.

Trend No. 2: Minilaptops

The ASUS Eee PC mainstreamed tiny notebooks. Because they're so small and so cheap, increasing numbers of people will want two laptops, a big one for full-powered work, and a tiny one for quick-and-dirty on-the-go usage. I think this trend will continue well into the era of MPG operating systems. We can look forward to all-screen clamshell minilaptops.

One of the limitations of the ASUS Eee PC-size devices is that the keyboard isn't big enough. But imagine if the keyboard consisted only of letter and number keys, and that "command" keys -- Tab, Caps Lock, Shift, Ctrl, BackSpace, Delete, Enter and so on -- didn't exist?

A Taiwan company called E-Lead showed off a minilaptop at Computex this week (which it also demonstrated at CES) with an innovative keyboard. The product, called Noahpad EL-460, is designed to compete with the ASUS Eee PC and other subnotebooks.

The EL-460's keyboard doubles as a touchpad. You run your fingers over the same keys you use to type to send gesture commands to the system. Those gestures replace various command keys, which enable the letter and number keys to be the same size they would be on a full-size laptop.

Don't get me wrong, I don't think the Noahpad EL-460 has a prayer of being successful. And I'm always suspicious of anyone who tries to re-invent the QWERTY keyboard. But the design suggests an innovation for the MPG future, where everyone is learning and using gestures anyway. It's easy to imagine a software keyboard on a multitouch screen doubling as a gesture area that could replace command keys on the keyboard. When you peck on the numbers, they're thrown up on the screen like a keyboard. But when you do gestures over the keys, the commands are received by the system.

Trend No. 3: The e-book revolution

The Amazon.com Kindle made the world safe for wireless electronic books. As people become increasingly comfortable with reading books, magazines and newspapers on a handheld electronic gadget, they'll want to do so on their laptops, too. The all-screen clamshell functions much like a paper book, with pages on both sides. A simple gesture while in e-book mode, say, swiping your finger from the upper-right corner toward the center, "turns the page."

The Kindle comes with a leather cover that lets you hold the one-screen Kindle like an open book, with the Kindle on the right and, well, leather on the left. Before my Kindle arrived, I assumed I would just throw away the leather cover and hold the Kindle by itself. But I, like many Kindle users, have found that holding it like a book with the leather cover is more natural and comfortable. As e-books go mainstream, people will increasingly become comfortable with an open clamshell form factor for reading, just like a paper book. This is an e-book reader design you can "curl up in bed with."

Trend No. 4: Wireless peripherals

Wireless Bluetooth keyboards and mice have been around for a while, and recent innovations around batteries and charging have made them even more useful. The MPG user interface will make keyboards and mice optional, but not necessarily obsolete. You'll still have real input devices if you want them.

Keyboards and mice are inexpensive and trivial to connect wirelessly via Bluetooth. I think touch typists and tactile keyboard enthusiasts will go out and buy their ultimate physical keyboard and mice, then use them with all their devices. Writers, programmers and graphic designers will use physical input devices, but the masses will do without.

So there it is, the laptop of the future. Poor kids will probably get it before you do, but mark my words, the all-screen clamshell laptop will eventually trickle up to business travelers, road warriors and digital nomads of all stripes.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, The World Is My Office. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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