What Is a Portable Computer?

In recent dueling ads about their tablet/laptop hybrids, both Apple and Microsoft ask the rhetorical question: What is a computer?

Well, we kinda know that, don’t we? The real question is, what is a “portable computer?”

A long time ago, in a marketplace far, far away, when you talked about a “portable computer,” you meant a laptop. But the definitive definition of that term recently has dissipated. What “portable computer” now means  (regardless of Apple’ and Microsoft’s current opinions) and what it will mean in the future—if it means anything—is anyone’s guess.

This definitive-to-fuzzy-definition dissipation started in the late 2000s when the smaller “netbook” laptop quickly became a Thing as competition to full-sized laptops—until it wasn’t.

Then, in 2010, Apple introduced the iPad. After some initial skepticism, every computer maker, their cousins and their neighbors down the street, surged into the tablet business. In 2013, DTC documented more than 70 tablet makers. This bandwagon-jumping host of suppliers managed to sell an estimated combined 186 million units.

When this tablet bubble predictably burst, all that was left was (mostly) the iPad, which somehow miraculously managed to hold its value despite dipping sales, a couple of major brand Android medium- and large-screen survivors, and a pile of small and cheap flotsam and jetsam that flood the market during the fourth quarter than quickly disappear again.

New tablet/laptop configurations

Since this tablet bubble burst, however, all portmanteau design hell seems to have broken loose. Vendors started to figure out how to merge the two devices to create something new and compelling, resulting in some twisty-turny portable computer devices that looked more like some cheap magician’s prop.

These days, designers seem to have settled on four basic designs:

  • Straight “slate” or tablet, such as the iPad Air or Amazon Kindle Fire
  • Tablet with a cover keyboard, such as the Surface Pro and the iPad Pro
  • “Detachable” that looks like a standard laptop, but with a touchscreen display that detaches to be used as a separate tablet
  • 2-in-1/convertible with an attached touchscreen that flips around 360 degrees to be used in multiple positions, pioneered by the Lenovo Yoga series

Another bubble?

So now, the market offers the traditional laptop, the “hybrid” tablet/laptop and the tablet. But this fling with tablet/laptop combos can’t be sustainable. We all know successful sales of anything breeds copycats, so it’s reasonable to expect more of these multi-purpose portable computers from other vendors are coming—each with some new subtle difference that further muddy the computing waters.

Plus, too much choice tends to confuse consumers and dampen a market. Remember what happened when the industry had all those tablet choices just four years ago? And when you consider inevitable technology advances, it’s hard to believe all these variations on a theme will continue to be hummed.

As in any other product bubble, marketplace performance will inevitably force the industry to settle on fewer configurations. But just what will the portable computer eventually evolve into? We can’t wait to find out.