The Future of Leonard’s Computing

For the past few months I’ve been meaning to put some of my thoughts down about what I’m looking forward to in my next computing device. My needs are somewhat specific, and influenced by the fact that I type a lot, I stare at screens all day, and for almost a year now, have been semi-nomadic.

My primary computing device (and what I’m typing on right now) for the past couple years is a 13″ 2008 Aluminum Unibody MacBook. This is about the longest I’ve had a laptop in the past decade. In between, I’ve had an incarnation of just about every generation of PowerBook/Macbook (Pro) since the earliest Titanium G4s (I may even have some of these still in storage). It has a few niggles (fidgety headphone jack, bad magnetic latch, non-backlit keys), but on the whole this MacBook is the best-built laptop I’ve ever owned – and even two years later, the unibody construction still impresses me as much as the day it arrived. Also, with 4GB of RAM and after putting in an SSD last year, I can honestly say that I feel no need for anything more powerful for my daily use. That being said, I’ve become increasingly frustrated with my Mac. Over the years, it’s become too big and heavy, less portable (especially for use outside and on the go), and the battery life, much too short (even after buying a brand new battery last week).

A lot of these frustrations are probably magnified because of the other devices that I’m now carrying around. In my bag now, I have a Kindle, and iPad 3G, an HTC EVO, an iPhone 3G, and (for a little bit) a Nokia N900. None of these are laptop replacements, but all of them point to the future in a way that my MacBook doesn’t.

Of course, the most talked about of these is the iPad. I don’t think I have much to add to that well trodden ground. I’ll just preface by saying that I’m not a hater. The iPad is not only a great lean back device, but it’s also a valid, and pretty darn compelling vision of the future of personal computing (except for the syncing w/ iTunes part. That’s just archaic). For most people, it lets them do everything they would want to do with a computer easier, better, and more socially. (My personal favorite commentaries on the iPad include Alex Payne’s and Fred Wilson‘s.) So, with that being said, although I’m now carrying one around (thanks Music Hack Day!), and I’ve poked and prodded extensively (see project here), it’s not the future of my computing.

For me, the laptop replacement I’m looking for is the smartbook. For those unfamiliar with the term, the simple description is that these are ARM-based smarphone guts stuffed into a netbook form factor. They are fanless, have 10″ screens, full-size keyboards and hover just under 2 lbs (800-900g) in weight. More importantly, they have ridiculous battery life (8-12hrs actual), days of standby, and like smartphones have 3G, GPS, quick wakeup and active-network standby. They are all Linux-based (Android or Meego), and provide a decent browser, vim, terminal, and keyboard – the things I actually need to stop carrying my laptop around.

Unfortunately, with all the tablet excitement, the smartbook form factor seems to have taken a bit of a backseat. Although prototypes have been shown by ODMs since Computex 2009, the only smartbook that has been released so far is the HP Compaq Airlife 100, and even then, only in Spain via Telefonica. Devices like the Mobinova Beam and Lenovo Skylight both have been delayed (without solid release dates) as they’ve been retooled to run Android, and ODM designs from Compal, Pegatron, Quanta etc have yet to show up anywhere besides the occasional trade show appearance.

Right now, the most promising up and coming smartbook looks to be the Toshiba AC100/Dynabook AZ. It’s scheduled to launch in August, and has gotten some fairly detailed hands-on reviews. Here’s the German English promo video that gives a decent overview:

The last piece of the puzzle for me, one that’s actually referenced (but not addressed) by the video above, is that my next computer should really be daylight readable. After some production delays, Pixel Qi (Mary Lou Jepsen‘s company spun off from the display technology she originally designed for the OLPC) has finally started selling its displays in kit form. Here is a video showing the Pixel Qi display compared to the iPad display outdoors:

And here’s a description of how the technology works:

There are other daylight readable technologies, CPT’s transflective display, Qualcomm’s Mirasol displays, and Liquavista’s electrowetting-based displays, but none of those have release dates yet. The Mirasol and Liquavista displays are very interesting, being color and bi-stable, but they’re currently being targeted primarily at e-book form factors/applications, so probably won’t be showing up in 10″+ screens anytime soon.

Qualcomm seems to be making good progress in releasing 5.7″ Mirasol-based e-readers by the end of the year, which would be darn nifty. Still, I won’t be holding my breath.

For those of you interested in following along, especially in the whole whole slightly weird world covering MIDs, tablets, and ultraportables, I recommend:

And, to sum up, there’s no product in the pipeline with quite these specs, but here’s what would make me a happy camper:

  • Good keyboard (Acer’s flat keys are my current favorite of the netbooks I’ve tried) w/ backlit keys
  • Large, multitouch trackpad
  • 8-12hrs of active battery life, several days standby
  • 2 lb weight, 0.5″ thickness
  • 10-12″ 720p+ daylight-readable screen (capacitive touch bonus)
  • GPS + Location aware OS
  • 3G WWAN (penta/hexband for bonus points)
  • Active network standby, notifications
  • Fast boot, instant resume
  • DisplayPort or HDMI output