Lenovo Accelerate: The coming disruptive evolution/evolution of the laptop

Announcements made at Lenovo Accelerate could indicate a potentially disruptive PC landscape over the next 3-10 years. At the end of this cycle, PCs will certainly look and work very differently than they do today.

lenovo thinkpad x1 foldable pc 1
Lenovo

 [Disclosure: Lenovo is a client of the author.]

I just came back from Lenovo Accelerate and I was reminded (again) that it’s kind of amazing how long we’ve stuck with the clamshell-designed laptop. IBM introduced the concept back in the early 1990s and we’re approaching 30 years where it’s remained the dominant/default laptop design, overcoming challenges by smartphones and, most recently, tablets.

I think that’s about to change…and no place was that more evident than at Lenovo Accelerate this year.

From the screens on the laptop (or whether we’d even have a screen on our portable PC), to the materials we use to cover the device, to how we secure the display, to whether we drop the concept entirely all potential trends were on display at the show and few were mutually exclusive.

Materials revolution

The first leather-covered PC I ever carried was from the old IBM PC company which Lenovo later purchased from IBM. It was a failed design called the TransNote. It failed not because folks didn’t like the leather, but because (preceding touch screens) it tried to blend a large 3M digitized pad with a tiny (and massively underpowered) laptop in the same somewhat integrated kludge of a product. That was in the late ‘90s, but it wasn’t until recently that HP [Disclosure: HP is a client of the author] highlighted their Spectre Folio, which is currently one of my two favorite PCs to carry largely due to its very comfortable leather cover.

Lenovo also highlighted a leather-covered notebook during their show, but they didn’t stop there. They also spotlighted an exposed-weave automotive-like carbon fiber. Now, carbon fiber isn’t new to laptops, but it’s traditionally been presented in a way that is nearly indistinguishable from plastic, even though exposed-weave carbon fiber is incredibly popular in high end automobiles.

It’s always seemed kind of tone deaf to incur the cost of carbon fiber and not get the visual benefit. Lenovo is the only vendor that’s announced automotive-like carbon fiber on their high-end notebook line and leather on their new Foldable Notebook. (By the way, I’ve wrapped my Microsoft Surface Book in leather from Toast and it is now a ton easier to carry.)

Screen revolution

Given the Samsung foldable screen smartphone was such a disaster I’m pleased it didn’t kill the foldable screen concept. Lenovo showcased a laptop, due in 2020, that will fold down from its 13” unfolded size to about half that, which would give it a carry size similar to a thick paperback book. Their implementation is far better than Samsung’s in that it is an OLED screen, folds completely flat (no visible seam) and it doesn’t have a critical protective plastic layer that users can accidentally remove (which is what caused Samsung’s phones to initially fail).  

Now both of these are initial products. But ironically I like the foldable screen smartphone that Motorola is working on better than I like the Samsung effort (it folds down into a flip-phone-like device). I also think rather than making the laptop into a thick, smartphone-sized carry box that won’t be used as a phone, it would make more sense for it to expand up to monitor size.

What I’m talking about is taking a 13” form factor and folding it out to a 26” screen, eliminating the need for the portable displays some of us carry and allowing us to take the full monitor experience on the road. I expect we’ll get there as screen prices drop (which is likely the gating factor).

Head mounted displays

Lenovo showcased their advancements in AR with their ThinkReality headset, basically a cost-reduced Microsoft HoloLens 2 with the battery both remote and replaceable, remote controls (not on the headset) and its own unique developer ecosystem tied to enterprise customers. [Disclosure: Microsoft is a client of the author.]

But this is a steppingstone to head-mounted displays that could be tied to a tethered portable PC worn on your belt at some future date…rendering the laptop redundant, but giving us a virtual display as large as our imagination (and I have a huge imagination).

A revolution in the making

Putting this all together, I think we’re seeing the beginning of one of the biggest revolutions in PC design since IBM brought out the butterfly laptop. This revolution may turn most laptop users into wearable computer users over time, make monitors as we currently know them obsolete, drive a far higher use of voice interaction over keyboards, and wrap the result with materials more often seen on cars than PCs, like exposed weave carbon fiber and leather.  

I expect that over the next 36 months we are going to see significant changes, thanks to viable foldable screens (in both smartphones and PCs), and in the next 10 years an accelerating move to evolve them to include head-mounted displays.

The only question is, will the first mature before the second takes over? Change is definitely in the wind.

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