Opinion: Goodbye, notebook; hello 'Web tablet'

The notebook computer is doomed. OK, that's a little strong. And as one of the people who worked on the first laptop PC, the GRiD Systems Compass Computer Model 1101, there will always be a soft spot in my heart for mobile PCs. But as we move into the era of infocentricity, defined by Web 2.0 network services, the "everyone gets a CPU" model needs to be replaced by "everyone has access to an interface to the Web."

We'll continue to interact with information using the familiar WIMP (windows, icons, menus and pointing device) model of today. But that interface will run on a lightweight -- as defined both physically and software-wise -- inexpensive package. This may be Microsoft's worst nightmare. Still, it's the only way to go as access to more information than one can carry becomes critical and the expense involved in maintaining and managing a PC continues to increase.

It's been noted that a purely Web services approach won't work until we have ubiquitous wireless connectivity, and this is certainly true. This means that at best we'll need a hybrid thick-/thin-client approach for the time being and that we won't be able to ditch the notebook PC for a few years yet. But notebooks are heavy and expensive, especially with especially with respect to operational expense, and most of the functions we require of them can be done on far simpler platforms.

It's the size factor I want to focus on here, though. A four-pounder, or even Apple's sexy new 3 lb. MacBook Air can get pretty heavy, especially with all of its required accessories and lots of airports to lug all this through.

Sure, we can use our cell phones for many Web-based functions, as well as e-mail and personal information management tasks. But the screen of even the most business-centric phones is much too small for regular Web-centric or local-app use.

This leads to the idea of, unfortunately, one more device for your mobile arsenal. This class doesn't yet have a name that everyone acknowledges at this point; I've been calling them Web Tablets. The idea is to have a device with a screen of 7 inches or so, give or take a few, that can function as a stand-alone Web access device, typically via Wi-Fi. Or they can be connected via a USB cable or Bluetooth's dial-up networking profile to a cell phone. Believe it or not, these are widely available in a number of incarnations and approaches today. For example:

  • Apple iPod Touch -- It features the very good browser (and most of the applications) from the iPhone.
  • Asus Eee -- A tiny clamshell design; runs Linux and can also run Windows XP (if you must).
  • Nokia N810 -- The latest in a series that began with the groundbreaking 770; now vastly improved with a very good browser (Mozilla) and a slide-out physical keyboard.
  • One Laptop Per Child -- This largely philanthropic effort may also yield business products over time; Intel's Classmate PC has similar potential.

Linux may in fact become the preferred platform for these devices in the future, given that it's 1) free, and 2) widely adopted by the software development community. I think we may see more of these products announced this year, despite the immaturity of this approach and the lack of any formal definition of this type of device.

Indeed, we've already seen one notable failure here -- the Palm Foleo. To be fair, though, this product was a tad expensive and very limited in functionality. I think the Web Tablet is in fact defining the next big thing in mobility -- a fourth screen, beyond the TV, PC and cell phone. And such may ultimately be the replacement for the notebook as we know it today.

Craig J. Mathias is a principal with Farpoint Group, an advisory firm specializing in wireless networking and mobile computing. He can be reached at craig@farpointgroup.com.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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