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Will Laptop Computers Become Obsolete?

Laptop computers have come a long way. The earliest examples of laptops were huge, clunky machines that could barely manage basic arithmetic functions. Today, we have sleek, elegant designs that only weigh a few pounds and yet are capable of performing functions that would have been thought impossible just a few decades ago.

We can speculate about a path for future laptop development. In the coming years, the laptops will probably get even thinner, higher resolution, faster, and cheaper, with longer battery life. But is there ever a point where this stream of development falls short? Is there a conceivable future in which laptops become obsolete entirely?

The Long Vision of the Future

Despite more than 40 years of production, development, and public use, laptop computers are still going strong. If you search for laptops on sale, you can find a wide range of types of laptops for reasonably affordable prices. There are laptops designed for minimalistic functionality and easy portability, with a lightweight build and low entry price point. There are also laptops designed for resource-intensive functions like video gaming, with heavier builds and mouth-watering tech specs.

Still, if we take a long enough vision of the future, it seems inevitable that laptops will become obsolete, in the same way that all modern human technologies will eventually become obsolete. Currently, scientists and innovators are in the earliest stages of exploring computer-like technologies that can be activated and accessed with the mind; eventually, there may come a day when we can access the Internet and perform computing functions without even touching a physical device. In this reality, only the most stubborn luddites would even dream of using a physical laptop.

But for this vision to come fully to fruition, we would likely need hundreds, or even thousands of years. Not only would we need to develop technology capable of rendering laptops obsolete, but we would also need to make enough cultural progress for older generations to get acclimated to these new technologies.

In short, laptops will eventually become obsolete. The real question is when.

The Path to Laptop Obsolescence

What could the path to laptop obsolescence look like?

First, we should acknowledge some of the weak points of laptops that might shorten their otherwise impressive lifespan as the computing device of choice for millions of people.

  •       Generalized functionality. Laptops have general functionality. This may seem like a strength, but it might be laptops’ undoing. Laptop computers can do almost anything, from displaying video to playing video games to working on software, managing spreadsheets, and communicating with others. It can install apps, run software, and be modified at a user’s discretion. Compare that to something like a TV or a refrigerator, which does only one function incredibly well. In general, technology evolves in the direction of specialization; while we appreciate the general functionality of laptops today, we may prefer two or three highly specialized devices that substitute for a laptop in the future.
  •       Large size. Even the slimmest, lightest laptops still impose a physical burden. These are large, bulky devices that are simply outclassed even by modern smartphones and tablets in terms of physical dimensions. In the future, most users will strongly prefer smaller, slimmer, more easily handleable devices.
  •       Local storage. Smartphones and tablets often rely on cloud storage, rather than local storage, giving them expanded capabilities. Increasingly, people are turning to the convenience and inexpensiveness of cloud storage and cloud computing. Laptops currently enjoy popularity in part because they still offer old fashioned, local storage. But this probably isn’t going to last forever.
  •       Inaccessibility. Desktop PCs are likely to remain relevant far into the future in part because they’re so customizable. People can easily upgrade individual components as they see fit, and even custom build their own machines. Laptops, while technically customizable, are usually much harder to access and customize.

That said, there are some major strengths that laptops will still be able to offer for years to come.

  •       The everything computer. Laptops can do anything and everything. For the time being, millions of people like having devices that can do almost anything they need. There is no viable replacement for everything a laptop can do – at least, for the moment.
  •       Total versatility. Laptops are also very versatile. They can be designed and developed in many different ways, and they can be customized by end users to serve niche functions. Until smaller, slimmer devices become more customizable, this is an advantage laptops are unlikely to yield.
  •       Legacy. We also need to remember the legacy and perception of laptops. Even if laptops were practically outclassed by smaller, newer types of devices, there would be a segment of the population who insists on continuing to use them because of personal preference, familiarity, and comfort.

The Folly of Tech Predictions

There was a time when prevailing tech minds thought the obsolescence of laptops was on the near horizon – and it wasn’t that long ago. Upon pioneering and showcasing the tablet, Steve Jobs famously speculated that soon, laptops would be completely overtaken by tablets. His reasoning was that tablets were better for most things, for most people.

But as it turned out, tablets were incredibly good at a narrow range of functions, while laptops continue to remain dominant as “everything computers.” If we see the development of a device that has objective advantages over laptops, we may be surprised to find that laptops continue to preserve their enduring popularity.

The Bottom Line

It’s hard to say exactly if and when laptops will become obsolete. It doesn’t help that even the term “obsolete” can be subjectively interpreted and questioned. Still, we can acknowledge some serious weaknesses of laptops and speculate about the types of devices likely to replace them in the distant future. And it seems incredibly likely that after several more years, or even decades of relevance to average users, laptops will eventually be replaced and forgotten, like so many other technologies of our past.

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