Laptops have been around for 40 years and 6 years ago when Intel pushed the 2-in-1 category we saw the first real innovation on the way we’d use our laptop. We didn’t need to have it on our lap or desk, it could be a tablet we carried around to work on the go. The keyboard could be spun, folded or lifted away, but even though it’s more versatile at its core the category has essentially remained a screen with a keyboard.
Before we look at what would need to be in place ecosystem wise to drop the keyboard, let’s take a quick look at the direction the industry is currently headed.
Why do laptops need to evolve?
Over the last few months, we’ve been seeing some companies show off ideas of what a notebook would look like if we played around with the form factor even more. Lenovo showed off a concept device which had no keyboard at all.
One of the biggest challenges to laptops is that our computing behaviors have changed. What we would once use laptops or PCs for, such as browsing the internet, creating documents and even playing games, we now use smartphones or tablets for.
While our habits have evolved, laptops hadn’t, which meant that these devices seemed positively archaic to some people, hence the continued decline in laptop sales. People had moved on.
Next-generation Notebooks will be more like Smartphones
At Computex 2019, we saw laptops were starting to take the best bits of smartphones and tablets, and has resulted in new devices that can keep up with modern user’s demands.
So, we’ve got Intel’s Project Athena, which aims to create laptops that can wake up instantly – just like a smartphone does – allowing you to use it straight away.
Intel also shared its vision for ‘ambient’ PCs, code-named “Mohawk River”, that will remain on when closed, and will intelligently know when its owner is nearby (and what sort of tasks said owner will want to perform on the laptop) by using a frankly astounding array of sensors. While the idea of an intelligent laptop that knows more about you than you do yourself is a bit freaky, it’s also very cool as well.
Meanwhile, Qualcomm has continued to strive to make a laptop that combines the best of smartphone and tablet features and technology, and with its Project Limitless collaboration with Lenovo, it showed off the first ever 5G laptop at Computex 2019 that might actually achieve those lofty goals.
Powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8cx platform, Project Limitless is a laptop that offers instant-on, always connected internet and – most excitingly of all – multi-day battery life.
MediaTek also announced a processor that supports 5G, so the cheap and cheerful midrange has access to 5G!
Intel is now longer the only game in town for Notebooks
Intel has enjoyed a virtual monopoly in the notebook space for years. AMD notebooks might have a small foothold in emerging markets (and my home country of Canada) because of their price. However, they’ve been behind Intel for many years in terms of performance and reliability. I’ve had trouble recommending AMD laptops because the chips burn out from being too hot.
10 years ago AMD saw that adding more lanes and hyperthreading wasn’t the way forward. Instead, they basically stuck two processors together (which is why they had heat issues), they saw that the fundamental technology wouldn’t be able to evolve. A decade of investment and they FINALLY seem to have become a viable alternative to Intel.
Acer offers the Acer Nitro 5 and Swift 3 running AMD and Qualcomm has been pushing their Snapdragon-powered notebooks. They showed off a notebook running the 5G enabled 8CX which performance wise is equivalent to an 8th gen Intel Core i5.
More choice for the consumer is always a good thing, and it means we’ll be getting notebooks that aren’t limited to Intel’s vision.
What do we need to drop the keyboards?
I can remember a time when we thought that we wouldn’t be able to get rid of the keyboard on smartphones. Blackberry users were addicted to typing without looking at their phones and admittedly in the first few years, it was faster to type with a physical keyboard than a digital one.
Then we had Swype which was only available on some phones because of patents. Now gliding your finger across the screen to form words is normal.
The Smartphone had to go through a serious technical evolution in terms of display and touch technology. Notebooks have a bit of head start since they can look to user behavior on smartphones.
Display manufacturers will come up with a way for us to touch type the same way we do on transitional keyboards. Little notches on the J and F key’s keep tell my fingers where they are so I can blissfully stare at the screen as my fingers form words.
However, there is one key technology that will need to become more useful before those who are productivity focused.
Voice will need to be more useful.
Right now voice assistants aren’t intelligent enough to be genuinely useful in a business context.
We’ve seen Microsoft demonstrate how voice can be used in meetings to create meeting minutes. The AI then does the work at turning them into a summary. As machines become more intelligent they can make our conversations more useful and increase our productivity in ways other than talking to our devices over typing.
Those writing about technology maybe the hardest on the move since we write more than the average person. You only have to imagine an open office floor plan and everyone talking to their notbeooks instead of quitetly typing to know that we’re so very far from a future without keyboards.
This doesn’t mean that it’s not where we’re heading.
5G, Edge and Cloud Computing are key to new form factors
To understand just how far we are there have been several announcements for processors that will support 5G. This is a starting place, these are the platforms on which future form factors will evolve.
5G has the potential to change how we build devices. the form factor of our devices. Notebooks would no longer need internal storage and processors would need less compute since you could rely on the cloud.
5G’s speeds will allow us to imagine new ways of building devices. Right now we’re seeing companies try to imagine how we will use devices with evolution’s we find in components. The flexible display has allowed us to imagine replacing the keyboard with a screen. But they’re still limited since they need to include all the traditional hardware you need in a notebook.
We need Voice to also get to a place where we can start to interact with our devices in more meaningful ways. We are so far away from a catch all general AI, highly specialized AI that helps with very specific tasks is what we’re going to see emerge over the next few years. This is what Google is showing with it’s assistant and it’s the direction that Microsoft is going with business.
The way our data is organized and how we access it will also need to change. As smart city and home put compute and interfaces in our world, we can start to imagine not only the how, but where we will interact with our data.
Right now our phone is our portal to the digital world, as our devices become more connected we can reconsider what we’ll be using the notebook for and this will impact what it looks like.
If I’m going to give up my keyboard, I have a lot of requirements for how the world has to change to support a fundamental change in my productivity.
What do you think? Will they be prying they keyboard from your cold dead hands? Or can you see a future without one?