It Lives: No, the laptop is not dead

24 June 2018

You know a product category is dead when it’s so good you can’t think of any ways to improve it.

Writing for PCMag, John C. Dvorak must have received some miscommunication on the meaning of the word dead:

“The Traditional Laptop Is Dead.”

It seems that someone forgot to send out the memo on that because millions of laptop owners around the world are still happily typing and clicking away at their dead machines. Is this a warped spinoff of The Sixth Sense or something?

Here’s the description under the article header:

Has any recent laptop announcement excited you? Me neither. With no innovations on the horizon, laptop makers should focus on making them sturdier and cheaper.

Correction: There are no innovations on John C. Dvorak’s horizon. Dvorak’s lack of imagination should not lead us to believe our laptops are perfect as they are, because they’re not. (Does making them sturdier and cheaper not count as an innovation?)

… what I’ve noticed over the past five years is that once the touch screen appeared on the laptop, the whole category was dead in the water except for, adding a USB-C port.

Except for the last significant change since the touchscreen, there have been no significant changes to the laptop since the touchscreen!

And surely there is nothing left to be improved on laptops. Not even Dvorak can think of anything! (Actually, he has a list of things, but we’ll get to that later.)

Have there been any revolutionary changes to laptops recently? Not really. Anyone can see this. But it takes a special kind of pundit to think that means the category is dead. It’s incredibly obtuse to expect extreme or sudden changes from a product category whose history has been defined by incremental improvements.

When you look at PCMag’s roundup of the best laptops , do you ever think to yourself, “Wow, I want that now!” Never happens.

This is a good thing. The reason we don’t often feel the need for a new laptop is because our current one is so good. Uluroo’s laptop is five years old and doing just fine; he wouldn’t need or even really want an amazing new design unless his current device were failing. If laptop update cycles were like that of the smartphone, we’d feel pressure to buy the latest and greatest machine when our current one can already last several more years.

The point is nothing is going forward. The machines are already as light as they can possible [sic] get. The touch screen is here. The power is all you need. They have built-in connectivity. It’s over.

No, it’s not over! The fact that John C. Dvorak cannot stretch his mind enough to think of a way to improve laptops does not mean laptops cannot be further improved. Even more power would be better. And how about longer battery life? Cellular connectivity on laptops certainly exists, but it’s not mainstream. And Dvorak isn’t on the laptop development teams; he doesn’t know what tricks these engineers have up their sleeves to make the devices lighter and thinner.

And how many laptops are lightweight and have touchscreens (ugh) and are extremely fast and have cellular capabilities and have good battery life? Certain laptops may have one or two items on the checklist, but no one laptop has them all. These innovations are still spread around the market.

Even if a theoretical device did check all the boxes, that would mean laptops are so good they can’t get any better — and if that’s the case, is that a sign that laptops are dead, or that they’re more alive than ever?

Interestingly enough, Dvorak switches from “laptops are done improving” mode straight into “here are some laptop improvements I thought of” mode.

So how about building one that lasts more than a few years? A laptop should remain attractive and viable and useful for at least five years… Most keyboards are flawed, how about one that is easily replaceable? … Oh, and more importantly, how about a low price point , not $1,400+ dollars?

It’s true that the cheapest of all laptops will not last long, but of course Dvorak doesn’t consider any other price range that might last a while. A good laptop will remain functional for a long time. What Dvorak seems to want is for good laptops to also be cheap laptops.

Dvorak seems to have forgotten that in technology products, better features always start at higher price points and then, over time, spread to other ranges. Think about the iPhone: the highest-end smartphone was originally way more expensive, but over a few years similar build quality and features reached lower-end devices.

Dvorak is simply asking for the next step in the evolution of the laptop: make power and build quality cheaper. To an extent, this is already happening, but Dvorak is impatient enough to suggest that the current course of improvements is not leading to cheaper, better devices.

Uluroo is also curious why Dvorak referred to the “traditional” laptop in the headline; there’s no talk of a new type of device that will shake things up, so Uluroo assumes it was simply to make the title more effective clickbait.

Regardless, the laptop is not dead. Dvorak is expecting awesome innovations from a category whose updates have always been more “boring” than other releases like new smartphones. Incremental updates are what have made the laptop what it is, and that’s what we should expect going forward. Again, slower updates are better because people keep their laptops longer. Just because we don’t have our minds blown by the next generation of laptops doesn’t mean the category is dead. This is the way it’s always been.

Dvorak is also being rather hypocritical. Supposedly, laptops are dead because there are no improvements on the way, but Dvorak ends up giving his advice on what companies should do — and already are doing — to improve them.

Again, the fact that all these innovations exist on separate laptops is not good enough: the category will continue to move forward until any given device has all of the features Dvorak mentions as being the final step in laptop improvements.

So if “Has it been radically updated in the past few years?” is your litmus test for whether a category is alive or dead, you’re looking at it wrong. We aren’t the ones developing these new devices, so we have no idea whether a significant change is in fact around the corner. But even if it’s not, by no means should we draw the curtains on the category.

Are laptops dead? If you think so because they’re done improving, you’re missing the point. A device with no possible improvements left is perfect, not dead.