Note: You can also discuss this post at Hacker News.

UPDATE: It took seven years, but here’s the first commercial version:

People are still using their desktop and laptop computers instead of only smartphones and tablets. At work, they have to; they need the performance. Tablets can be used  as monitors or terminals, but need to connect to something with more performance (a desktop/notebook/netbook) for many tasks.

But smartphones were an amazing initial proof-of-concept that people will try to do work in a very small form factor on a less-powerful platform that they used to do on a large screen connected to a more powerful platform.

So as the performance of small form-factor computing (smartphones and tablets) increases, will it ever truly disrupt the high-performance (desktop/notebook/netbook) market?

What Does “Disrupt” Mean?

A disruptive technology or innovation is typically one that:

  • Provides far less performance than existing ones (and are usually much simpler);
  • Initially have a very small or virtually no market;

But over time find (or create) a market for themselves, and then improve their performance until they end up dominating a market that pre-existing ones dominated before them.

This phenomenon of a new disruptive technology or innovation displacing existing technology or innovation after it finds a market that can finance the development of its improved performance was first clearly documented for the public in the book The Innovator’s Dilemma (although I only read that book after first reading  Blue Ocean Strategy).

Can Small Form Factor Computing Disrupt Desktops and Laptops?

Of course it can…eventually, but how will it do so if it does?

As a lot of money has gone unspent on laptops and desktops, and some of it spent on tablets instead, the industry that makes memory has lost nearly $15 billion due to the desktop/laptop market dropping while the tablet market has been expanding.

But tablets are not powerful enough to really displace laptops/desktops yet, and have created a new market for themselves, in no small part thanks to the growth of apps for smartphones and tablets. And yet, people have avoided spending more in the desktop/laptop market not only because of a (somewhat) global economic slowdown, but because the money they would have spent has gone to smartphones and tablets.

The Big Question: What’s The Right Size For Small Form-Factor Computing?

If I had a touchscreen tablet that could dock AND be as powerful as my desktop computer, it would be the only thing I used—if it were also extremely portable. Currently, I have an iPad1-form factor tablet (the HP TouchPad), a netbook, a desktop, and a smartphone. I “dock” my touchpad in a cheap case/stand and use it with a wireless keyboard. I also use it connect remotely to my desktop PC sometimes.

Bigger smartphones and smaller tablets seem to many to be mis-sized. The feeling seems to be that a tablet is not supposed to be as portable as a phone; a smartphone is not supposed to be so large it takes two hands to operate.

So two things are missing: First: the right form factor. Typical smartphone sizes are very portable, but are not as usable as typical tablet sizes. Second: performance. Small form-factor computing can’t disrupt the desktop/notebook/netbook market because we need the extra performance. We’re not truly in the post-PC era yet.

One of the first attempts at resolving these hybrid issues is the Padphone.

Will The Folding Tablet Disrupt Everything?

The problem with predicting the future is that markets have shown that they don’t always want the cool things that could be built.

Flying cars have been possible for decades now, and the world’s first public video telephone service debuted in 1936! Okay, there was no public videophone service until AT&T launched it in the mid-1950s, and the first consumer-ready videophone didn’t truly arrive until Bell System offered it at the 1964 World’s Fair, but it didn’t take off until Skype and facetime popularized the idea nearly a half-century later!

However in the computing market of today, consumers have demonstrated an almost insatiable appetite for the next big thing.

So it’s simple to say: if you had a device that was the form factor of a smartphone, but unfolded by thirds into the form factor of a tablet/netbook screen, and then docked with a keyboard in a case and had the power of today’s laptops at the price of a smartphone, would you want it?

Really, there is no question that the answer is yes. And unless holographs or screen embedded in eyeglasses or contacts get there first, it seems almost certain that a device that is both highly portable and highly usable as well as powerful and inexpensive would dominate the market.

Is Microsoft The Future?

And this is something Microsoft can copy and be successful with, even if they have become much smaller due to the small form-factor market beginning to disrupt the high-performance market (and other causes). That is because the Windows operating system is so incredibly dominant for businesses. If you could replace your iPhone with a similar enough device that also worked as a tablet and could be used as your work computer, and still worked in the ways you want your smartphone too, it would be irresistible. You wouldn’t even necessarily have to buy it—your company would buy it for you.


Of course, this is just the kind of crazy speculation that people made for years about video telephone services.

But the kind of product I’m talking about appears to be less than a year away at this point, in part because of the cloud. This of course is how Siri, Apple’s popular personal assistant application for iOS, works: it connects “through the cloud” to a more powerful computer to do much of its work. And we already have folding smartphones and amazingly thin dockable tablets, e.g. see the videos at the end of this post.

So if Windows 8 is good enough (and many people think it is a good smartphone/tablet/desktop hybrid), and Microsoft doesn’t screw it up in Windows 9 (whatever that ends up being called) Microsoft could really pull off something amazing if your work computer could also be your smartphone and your home tablet. For the huge part of the market who’s work computing needs are wedded to Windows, this can’t happen without Microsoft.

This Has Happened Before

Apple’s personal computer was “best” but Microsoft still dominated the market. And Apple computer was in serious trouble for awhile (before Jobs returned). So don’t think that “best” wins. Or that Apple beats Microsoft by being better.

I also wouldn’t assume the folding/hybrid tablet market won’t happen. Once one company gets it right, it doesn’t matter how many others got it wrong first. Once it’s here, it’s likely to stay. Technology/innovation, according to The Innovator’s Dilemma, follow a path of :

1/Performance > 2/Reliability > 3/Convenience > 4/Low Cost

If the performance of the PC market is ever wedded with the convenience of the smartphone/tablet in a low cost package, it will dominate. And there seems to be very little in the way of this happening.

What do you think? In particular, what are all the ways Microsoft could screw this up, and the ways Apple and others could keep Microsoft out of the hybrid-tablet market as it emerges?

Some Foldable Smartphone, Ultrathin Dockable Tablet Examples