Six things laptops can learn from Apple iPad

Most of the leading notebook makers are planning their own tablets to respond to the iPad, but here are six things they can learn from the iPad to make their laptops better.
Written by Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief on

Apple sold 3.3 million iPads in Q2, the product's first quarter on the market. That was more than the number of MacBook laptops (2.5 million) that the company sold in Q2. Plus, the two products combined catapulted Apple from No. 7 in the global notebook market to No. 3.

Meanwhile, all of the other top five notebook vendors saw their growth slow during the same period, suggesting that the iPad cut into their sales. Will these iPad numbers be a short-term bump based on the unparalleled hype and anticipation for the product, or will it be amplified even further during the back-to-school and holiday seasons? That will be one of the most interesting trends to watch during the second half of 2010.

Nevertheless, the iPad has already sold enough units to alarm laptop makers and make them contemplate how to react. Nearly all of them are already working on competing tablets, powered by Google Android in most cases.

But, laptop makers should also look at the factors that are triggering the iPad's popularity and consider how some of those factors could be co-opted into notebooks. Here are the top six:

1. Battery life is a killer feature

When Apple first shared the technical specs of the iPad and claimed 10 hours of battery life, I rolled my eyes. Published battery life numbers rarely hold up in the real world. However, the iPad actually exceeded expectations. I've easily milked 11-12 hours of battery life out of the iPad, and others such as Walt Mossberg of The Wall Street Journal have reported the same thing.

This kind of battery performance is huge for business professionals because it untethers them from a charger for an entire business day. Whether it's for a full day of meetings or a cross-country flight, they can focus on their work without having to worry about finding a place to plug in at some point. I've see several business users state that this was their primary incentive for using the iPad.

2. Instant On changes the equation

The fact that you can simply click the iPad's power button and have it instantly awake from its sleep state and be ready to pull up a Web page, glance at a calendar, or access an email is another major plus. Compare that to dragging your laptop into a conference room, for example. Even the best laptops with Windows, Mac, or Linux take about 30 seconds to boot and then you have to log in and wait some more until the OS is ready.

You don't always want to fire up your laptop at the beginning of a meeting and leave it on because then you could get distracted or appear as if you're not paying attention to the other people in the room. But, if something comes up and you want to quickly access your information, then you want it instantaneously so that you don't have to tell the other people in the room, "Hang on for a second while I pull up that data," which can break the flow of the conversation and even make you look unprepared.

While some laptops can accomplish something similar by quickly going in and out of a sleep state when you flip the lid open or closed, this can regularly cause problems with wireless networking and other basic functionality, and tends not to be as quick as the iPad.

3. Centralize the software

The feature that made the iPad infinitely more useful for lots of different tasks is its massive platform of third party applications, which are all available in a central repository (that's the key feature) -- the Apple App Store . The App Store also serves another valuable function: All updates for iPad apps are handled there as well.

Contrast that with laptops where you can get software preloaded on your compter, buy software shrink-wrapped, or download it from the Internet, and then nearly all of the different programs have their own software updaters. It's a much more complicated and confusing process for the average user. There's no reason why a desktop/laptop OS platform can't have an app store. I recently noted that Ubuntu Linux 10.04 offers a nice step in that direction.

4. Simple interfaces are best

There's a classic children's book called Simple Pictures Are Best where a photographer is trying to do a family portrait and the family keeps wanting to try crazy things and add more stuff to the portrait and the photographer keeps repeating time and time again, "Simple pictures are best."

It's the same with a user interface. There's a natural tendency to want to keep trying to toss in more things  to satisfy lots of different use cases. But, the more discipline you can maintain, the better the UI will be. Since the iPad runs on Apple's iOS (smartphone) operating system, it is extremely limited in many ways. However, those limitations also make it self-evident to most users because it requires little to no training. People can just point and tap their way through the apps and menus.

Software makers have been attemtping simplified versions of the traditional OS interface for years, from Microsoft Bob to Windows Media Center to Apple Front Row. None of them have worked very well. The question may be one of OS rather than UI. Could a thin, basic laptop run a smartphone OS? I expect that we'll see several vendors try it in the year ahead.

5. Most users consume, not create

One of the biggest complaints about the iPad is that it offers a subpar experience for creating content. There's no denying it, and frankly it's one of the reasons that I personally don't use the iPad very much. It's mostly a reader of books, documents, and files for me, because when I go online I typically do a lot of content creation, from writing articles on TechRepublic to posting photos on Flickr to posting tech news updates on Twitter.

However, I'm not the average user. Even with the spread of social networking, which is much more interactive, the 90-9-1 principle still applies across most of the Web. That means only 1% of users are actual content creators, while 9% are commenters and modifiers, and the remaining 90% are simply readers or  consumers. The iPad is a great device for content consumers. But, it's not very good for the creators and modifiers, who are both strong candidates to stick with today's laptop form factors, which are perfect for people who type a lot and manipulate content.

That leaves a huge market that could be easy pickings for the iPad. As a result, vendors need to think about ways to make laptops better content consumption devices.

6. Size matters

Being able to carry the iPad without a laptop bag is another huge plus. The power adapter is even small enough to roll up and put in a pocket, a jacket, or a purse. The diminutive size of the iPad can make business professionals feel as if they are traveling very light, especially if they're used to lugging a laptop bag that included the laptop and a bunch of accessories to support it. On a plane, working with the iPad on a tray table is a much more roomy experience than trying to use most laptops.

The lightweight nature of the iPad can also make it more likely that professionals will carry it into a conference room or into someone else's office to show a document or a Web page, for example.

There are plenty of ultraportable laptops on the market from virtually every vendor, but these tend to be specialty machines and are often higher priced. In light of the iPad's success, vendors might want to rethink their ultraportable strategy by looking to make these devices smaller, less expensive, and better on battery life. They may also consider experimenting with a mobile OS such as Android on some of these devices.

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