The mobile technology sphere is progressing rapidly, and becoming increasingly complex. Which elements of systems theory can we apply to try and predict the course of the laptop market over the next year?
First, we’ll try to categorise the dominant forces in defining the future of the device. Next up, we’ll consider how those dominant forces are likely to interact. Finally, we’ll think about how the interaction of those forces is likely to influence the development of the laptop market as a whole.
Following a traditional Keynesian theory of economics, there are two main forces at play – consumer demand, and manufacturer supply. Each of these can be broken down further.
Consumer demand for laptops is a source of huge concern for laptop manufacturers at the moment. Why? Because it’s hard to predict. Consensus is that consumers are engaging more deeply with devices that emphasise mobility and connectivity over raw power. The diminishing of power’s role in consumer desire is likely due to the remarkable effort industry-wide to supply machines with high-power processors. Processors are nowadays unlikely to be the ‘bottleneck’ – constricting component – in consumer machines. As a result, raw specifications – the ‘GigaHertz effect’ – are becoming rarer as a marketing tool. Consumers expect responsiveness and adaptation to purpose, instead of large numbers.
This trend – which has been developing steadily since around 1999, at Microsoft’s pinnacle, has resulted in the tremendous surge in popularity of devices oriented around purpose. Apple is a key example here – specifications are swept under the carpet, and the user experience given prime position. The development of the cloud, in cooperation with the evangelising of ‘thinnish clients’ – such as low-powered tablets and Google’s Chromebook line – are likely to see this trend continue. Component manufacturers have focussed on ancillary matters – such as efficient use of power and dissipation of heat – in the place of pursuing higher clock cycles.
The consumer laptop market, then, is going to continue to move away from specifications as a marketing focus. Instead, those features emphasising mobility and responsiveness – use of Solid-State memory, larger batteries and higher-resolution displays – are likely to dominate.
On the supply side, there is significantly higher competition for components than there ever has been. Regulators have been slow to react to monopoly-esque moves by larger corporations – for example, Apple has effectively cordoned off the LG and Sharp high-resolution display manufacturing industry for their own. This could impede other manufacturers’ abilities to carry innovation through to end products. At the very least, expenditure required to manufacture products containing constrained components is likely to become prohibitive.
The likelihood here is that laptops’ price point will shift upwards. The dual forces of tablets and thinnish clients – as well as Apple’s surge in industry domination – will likely push laptops towards the higher end of current offerings. The tablet has seen unprecedented consumer adoption – outstripping the pace of adoption of more widely-used technologies like the Internet and electricity – and this is increasingly turning budget-minded consumers towards tablet PCs as viable alternatives to laptops.
Part of ensuring the survival of the laptop market will be the success or failure of Windows 8. Productivity suites still require a fixed, physical keyboard – and there are no technologies on the horizon which look to displace this. Laptops hereby carry an inherent advantage. The progress of the ultrabook category has been disappointing so far, but this could in no small sense be mitigated by the success of Windows as an OS.
So what conclusions can we draw? Unfortunately, simply that the laptop market is too fluid to make any coherent predictions. Certain features are a given – a focus on mobility and a push towards laptops as more premium devices – but these are far from the sum total of innovations likely to occur within the next year. Laptops as a whole will certainly endure, but the category may find itself subsiding in to other similar market offerings – as evidenced by the focus on both tablet-bearing and non-tablet-bearing ultrabooks.