Powerful Laptops Alter Mobile Landscape
New boon for mobile computing.
How far has wireless come?
I shopped for a new laptop recently, and the promotional materials for the laptop I settled on didn't even call out the fact that the laptop came with a wireless-access card. That information was buried in the specs. When buying it, I never even thought to check. I just assumed any laptop I bought at this time would include such a card. I questioned my assumption only when I encountered a hitch while setting up the system, and found myself wondering momentarily whether it even had a wireless-access card. It did.
While shopping for the laptop, my jaw dropped at how much power and versatility many of these devices included. My jaw dropped further when I saw the prices—not from sticker shock, but at the fact that the prices had come down so much since the last time I had shopped for one.
The power and versatility of the laptops sold today say a lot about the environment many developers who support business travelers, or travel themselves, work in today. For example, the ubiquity of wireless cards in laptops speaks to just how much the corporate landscape has changed. What once seemed like a major undertaking—supporting a wireless infrastructure—is fast becoming trivial in most circumstances. The plug-and-play aspects of many of these systems work quite well. Business employees often go from a wireless office to a wireless home office—in fact, the home setups are frequently more sophisticated than what you find at many offices. The cost of implementing such networks, from both a time and cash perspective, has plummeted over recent years. The real issue—the often ignored issue—is the security considerations that go with running a wireless device, especially in terms of securing the devices and the access points you use your devices on.
So what do laptops today promote as features? At the higher end: Intel Core Duo processors (yum!), 2 GB of RAM (also, yum!), and colossal hard drives (200 GB, on my new system, although the systems I looked at almost universally relied on 5400 RPM drives rather than 7200 RPM ones), dedicated video cards, Bluetooth, and TV tuners (!?). At major retailers, I could find all these features on laptops that sold in the neighborhood of $2000. Indeed, few stores carried more than a couple devices that cost more than this—most were solidly in the $1000-$1500 range. (Also on the subject of laptops: Some of the devices I saw weighed more and had larger dimensions than my old Mac Classic. Exaggerating only slightly, of course, if I'm exaggerating at all.)
The power and storage of these laptops suggest Microsoft and other vendors have guessed correctly in terms of relying on managed code and other strategies where coding is about how quickly and reliably you can implement solutions, as opposed to how fast the end solution is. Performance still matters for information that has to go across the wire (or wireless), but the reliance on managed code for core computing applications should barely be noticed by users even on lower-cost and mid-range computing systems.
For Tablet PC developers, the news was mixed. On the positive front, prices on such devices have come down quite a bit. I saw a couple devices retailing for less than $1000, and several others with midrange specs selling for only a small premium over comparable non-Tablet PC devices. On the downside, several retailers didn't carry any of these Tablet PC devices, and most had only one or two styles in stock—even at the larger electronics outfits such as Fry's Electronics. Also, I didn't see any Tablet PC-enabled laptops that came close to what you could reasonably consider the high end. This doesn't mean such devices don't exist, but I didn't see any when surveying the market.
I'm a big fan of the Tablet PC device. I have a couple of them, and I actually use the pen-and-ink features for a handful of tasks where I find the functionality indispensable. But I was disappointed not to find more of them, and not to find any at the stores I visited that I would consider adequate desktop replacements, an increasingly popular segment in the laptop category today.
Patrick Meader is editor in chief of Visual Studio Magazine.