There's an old joke about a doctor giving an elderly patient some good news and bad news. "Give me the bad news first," the old guy says. "OK, you've got cancer and you're dying. Best case, you have a few years left." "Oh god, that's awful," cries the old man. "What's the good news?" "Well," says the doctor, "You're in the best shape of your life, and your dementia means you won't remember any of this in a few hours." And that is, essentially, the Windows laptop renaissance.
Let's start with the good news. Laptops are great now. Really, they are. Most major notebook manufacturers have offerings that are attractive, well-built, and strike the right balance between powerful and petite. The improvements that started with 2011's first wave of ultrabooks have culminated in an age where ultrabooks like the Acer Aspire S7 and Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro are genuinely awesome. The Windows laptop has found its way.
It took long enough. It wasn't until Apple's 2010 MacBook Air makeover that PC manufacturers began to shed their bulky, blocky industrial designs. Even those first results were derivative, though, and frankly not good enough, until (some) manufacturers figured out that the most important areas to hit are keyboard, trackpad, screen, materials, and build quality. It helps to have a clean design, free of excess ornamentation, but making a good laptop has always been about the basics.
This moment of quality seems almost inevitable. As an institution, laptops today are remarkably similar to what they have always been. There is a screen and a keyboard, and eventually there was a trackpad. Layouts, battery life, materials, and hinge designs have all changed, but in linear fashion, chunks of marble being carved off of the ideal laptop we knew was hiding somewhere within the original concept, which remains unchanged. We've finally hit the platonic ideal of what a laptop wanted to be all along.
The macabre irony, of course, is that this all comes too late. As the laptop has become refined, its opposition has developed new and more compelling weaponry. This assault on laptops' domain, and even relevance, has come two waves, with a third that is either a saving or killing stroke, depending on how it goes.
Everything Mobile, All the Time
It's almost too obvious to point out that smartphones and tablets are by this point ubiquitous, but it's worth pointing out the unbelievable speed with which that happened. In just half a decade they've turned laptops from the magical thing you'd lug around in your bag in place of a hundred notebooks or textbooks, that let you take notes play video games and read ESPN in class, to something most people use only for work, only when absolutely necessary.
As recently as the late 90s, the idea of a laptop, a full computer that you can take around with you and compute with, was novel. It wasn't commonplace. But with the dot-com bubble at its peak, and in its eventual aftermath the rise of Web 2.0, computers made an important transition something you completed tasks on to something you enjoyed content with. The joy created by laptops as they became more and more consumer-friendly was from being able to take your videos and photos and internet articles (if you loaded a bunch of tabs, or saved the HTML as a document to open on the car or bus or plane) around with you. And for a while, the content outpaced the hardware, and laptops reigned.
Then the iPhone happened, putting the internet in your pocket instead of a messenger bag. Netbooks quickly followed, which were more portable than traditional laptops but almost unusable. And by 2008 and 2009, laptop sales went into a decline they still haven't pulled out of.
Wearables are the future, and laptops are the past. Right? Sort of. The reflex-hammer assumption is that when we finally transition away from laptops fully, it will be to something that looks a lot like Google Glass. Wearables, as foretold by Asimov and Dragon Ball Z. And eventually, yeah, probably. But the limitations on interface and power supply are legitimate holdups to the wearables revolution, and Glass isn't functional enough — or in the right ways — that you can replace your laptop with it any time soon.
And laptops, for now, have all the power they'll need for the foreseeable future. They can play a few games, run a few apps, and generally perform a little better every year. Which is fine; ultrabook performance is already good enough for almost everybody's needs. But good enough is crucial breaking point, and tablets and phones are creeping up on it. Someday soon, you'll be able to run all the programs you need off of a phone, at which point you'll stop and wonder, why do I own this computer again?
The trouble's coming from the other side of it, too. Ideas like the Oculus Rift require two 1080p (and in the future, even higher-res) screens to be powered at the same time, which takes way more horsepower than ultrabooks will be able to muster any time soon. Maybe the answer lies in Razer's new Blade, but it makes a lot more sense for the laptop's traditional roles to be divvied up between the improving processors in smartphones and tablets and the affordably beefy desktop.
The Weird Laptop Future
So where does that leave us? A laptop isn't the most portable device you own, even though they're all quite light now. It's probably not your go-to screen for watching a movie, nor is it your go-to for reading anything except, maybe, web articles. It's still essential for work — for doing spreadsheet work or writing comfortably or multitasking — but no longer ideal for all the things that, just a few years ago, made us want a really, really nice laptop.
The whole category has essentially been demoted to a web-browsing device, a desk communicator, a document-pusher, and a pretty-enough screen for viewing photos and maybe — maybe — editing them. Google recognised this, and churned out maybe the best laptop hardware ever with the Chromebook Pixel, at a crazy-arse price tag that no one's really ready for on a machine not optimised to do much else.
The other future for the laptop is the convertible, or specifically, the Microsoft Surface. Convertibles as a whole have been a refreshing, occasionally useful (see: the Lenovo Yoga) tangent, but have never really added a permanent dimension to the core idea of a laptop we've been sculpting for years. For that, we need the Surface, or something like it.
The job of a piece of technology is to convey the needs of a person into a form that's pleasant enough to use every day. Nothing's done that yet. It's an impossible maths problem in a lot of ways, given the spatial needs of a readable, usable screen (and Windows 8 and 8.1's scaling troubles); a comfortable keyboard; and yet a small enough size to be a real tablet-first device. But the basic needs we've got now are simple: tablet size, laptop capability. If it's possible, there are enough people banging enough heads against enough walls that someone will crack it. If it's not — and it might not be, especially if 7-8 inches turns out to be where we land with tablets — well, the world will begin to find even more ways to move on from traditional uses for the laptop.
And none of this is new information, really. We've known that we've been trending toward mobile computing for years. It's not going to happen just yet — walk by any Starbucks storefront and you'll still see the predictable row of MacBooks, ThinkPads, and unfortunate cardigans — but it's coming.
Technology is an industry given to its momentum, and hubris. It will ride an idea straight down into hell if it's been profitable within the past dozen fiscal quarters or so. And so the laptop will never truly die. There will always be the enterprise segment — and developers, quants, gamers, and others — whose own gear is getting pretty damn attractive on its own, and for whom a great deal of this article isn't true at all.
But the laptop as a cultural staple is fading, and has been for some time. It's just a shame that all of the pieces finally came together too late to make a difference, but early enough to make us fall in love with them just the same. I've always wanted using Windows to feel the way it can on some of these new laptops, even if that version of Windows might not make sense for much longer.
I'll still buy a new laptop sometime soon, probably a Yoga or Zenbook or S7, but without the easy confidence of buying into a dynasty or the luxury of a long future together. It feels like finally dating the pretty girl from class the summer before you both leave for college, bracing for the weird and uncertain future.