The Evolution of Portable Computing


I wish I was old enough to know how exciting it must have been when laptops actually started being small enough to carry around in a small bag. Of course, as laptops were growing in popularity in the early 2000’s, it was still way too early for me to have a reason to have one of my own. That being said, the first computer that I purchased for myself was a Dell Inspiron 15 Laptop, and it freed me from wrestling my brother for the family computer.

My generation likely underestimates the value that laptops have in our lives. I may be the exception of many of my friends having both a laptop and a desktop for my daily computing. For most people my age, a laptop is all they need to get by.

I was lucky enough to experience the age of smartphones in full. My usage of smartphones has only grown from my Motorola Droid 2 that I got in high school. Many of my cohorts now use it as a replacement for things they would otherwise do on a bigger screen – checking social media, browsing the web, and writing emails.

But now as the smartphone passes its first decade of maturity, what’s next for personal portable computing?

The answer is not completely clear at this point, but a prediction could be derived from where the industry is currently headed.

  • Apple argues that their new iPad Pro has a more capable processor than most laptops, but sales of iPads have actually fallen in the last couple years.
  • Microsoft, having been lapped in the smartphone race, is reportedly developing a pocketable smartphone / tablet hybrid that will define a new product category.
  • Samsung, Microsoft, and now Huawei have all developed software that converts a standard smartphone interface into a traditional desktop experience when plugged into a monitor. This can be supplemented with a mouse and a keyboard as well.
  • Laptop sales continue to plummet, while 2-in-1 sales are growing.

Essentially, manufacturers are trying to blur the lines of what a traditional consumer needs – while before, a consumer may have a laptop, a tablet, and a smartphone, now, they might just need a smartphone and a tablet, or some device in between.

For many individuals, a smartphone with a variable display size, mouse and keyboard, may be all they need to get by. But both workers and enthusiasts need more processing power than smartphones are able to output. So it is important to bring a few more variables into the equation:

  • The processing power of mobile chips- Since Apple’s tablet processors are now able to beat standard laptops in certain tasks, and Microsoft announced a version of Windows 10 that can run on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 mobile processor, it could be that mobile processors will scale up in capability in the next few years to eliminate the needs for standard laptop and desktop processors
  • External GPUs and other supplemental processing- With the development of the Thunderbolt 3 transfer standard, one can now use an external GPU enclosure to allow for more processing power over a 1-cable solution.
  • The evolution of remote processing- At this point, the technology has not trickled down to consumers, but many businesses utilize the cloud (i.e. data centers) to do any heavy processing. One can imagine a world where smartphones or other personal devices are simply screens with low latency wireless connections to data centers where all of the processing takes place.
  • Digital profiles– While it is also a hypothetical scenario, imagine being able to sit down anywhere, log into a terminal, and instantly have your desktop and all of your programs ready to go. It’s not as unlikely as it seems. Combined with cloud computing, this could be easily implemented, and in many cases is the direction that Microsoft is trying to move in.
  • New media to consume- Unfortunately for hardware manufacturers, they don’t have full say in what people will be watching and sharing in the future. That decision will be largely driven by consumers and by media companies – Facebook, Snapchat, Netflix and so on. If the next form of media is the type that can’t be easily consumed on a 5 inch screen, then it may be more practical for users to have secondary screens for media consumption.
  • New device categories Up until this point, I have not mentioned smartwatches or other device form factors that could change the way that we use computers. Imagine what it would have been like if Google Glass caught on. If Microsoft can capitalize on their portable convertible devices, and Samsung can introduce a foldable screen device to increase interactive space immediately, it could be interesting what manufacturers dream up.

If I had the opportunity to define a future that would be ideal for my usage, it would be as follows:

  • At home, I would have a traditional desktop setup, with all of the processing power I would need for the more complicated tasks I do. I could also access the desktop remotely, for a low-latency, fully capable feed.
  • When I’m mobile, I’d use a smartwatch for checking my messages and emails, taking calls, and playing music, with hopefully a good interface so I could draft up quick responses without feeling the need for a bigger device.
  • My third device would be some convertible device with a 10-13 inch screen, that I could have on me at all times. This device will have to have a data connection, and be able to convert into a full workstation when connected to a monitor. It also needs to have all of the functions a current smartphone has, so I can text and call.


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