Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Desktop, laptop or tablet: which form factor will win?

In the old days, when I was so much younger than today, computers used to be pretty easy to describe. A box, a keyboard and a screen. Often the box and keyboard were one and sometimes some extra boxes were added but the device on your desk was pretty unmistakably a computer.

Today it is different. The computer has thoroughly infiltrated our lives and even the timer chip in a microwave oven has more processing power than those expensive mastodons of my youth. The term computer has become a generic word describing a device that controls a multitude of processing tasks in our daily lives. Even when we narrow it down to the personal computer, the field is varied. Do we mean a desktop computer which still adheres to the classic set-up of box, keyboard and screen? Or do we mean an all-in-one device like the iMac or a laptop? Or is the personal computer a flat slab of electronics nestled behind a screen at which we furiously stab our fingers? At the moment the answer is of course: all of the above.

The question that fascinates me is: what will be the ultimate form of the personal computer? Will we keep having such a varied menagerie of form factors or will one prevail? There is no doubt that for some time to come, the diverse applications of the personal computer will garner diverse preferences in form factor as miniaturization has not come far enough yet to allow one tool for all jobs. Still, like with the car, one day one form factor may rule the roost. In other words: one form factor may be made to work in all area's of personal computing.

The main factor that is going to decide this I believe is the question of interfacing. The interface that is best in tune with our brain will decide which form factor will prevail. And looking at the rapid (not to say rabid) success of the touch interface, I believe the tablet computer has the best cards for becoming the dominant computer in the near future.

The intuitive action of touching something to make something happen is the easiest path our brain can take to accomplish a task. The sooner we can dispense with the extra thought processes of moving a mouse to move a pointer on the screen to click at a certain spot, the better our lazy brain will like it.

Many will say that the tactile experience of mouse and keyboard can never be replaced by a touch interface. But that is the same as saying that handwriting will never be replaced by typing. Or compressed digital music will never replace uncrompressed digital music on CD's. The masses will dictate the production lines and apart from some niche usage, the lesser used method will disappear. And technological development will gravitate towards incorporating as many disciplines into one production line as possible. It's cheaper.

The conclusion I can draw from observing the market and incorporating past industrial developments is that the tablet computer may well become the dominating form factor in all walks of computer life. Another conclusion I can draw is that I may be very wrong about this. After all, even Bill Gates thought that 640K of memory should be enough for anybody*.

* It appears Bill Gates never said this. See comments.


  1. That Bill Gates quote is actually a myth. He never has been quoted as saying anything of the sort. You can read about it on his wiki page under quotes.

  2. @ zwyrbla I stand corrected and duly noted. Thanks.