product diversion – an innovative notebook

While I’m less of a “toys for boys” kind of guy these days I am staring at five years on my current notebook and have been thinking about the new MacBook Air. You know, the one they slide out of a manila folder in the ad? Lots of cool ideas but in a lot of ways I’m actually disappointed.

Let me first tell you, over the past twenty-five years the best computer I’ve ever used was a Powerbook Duo in 1994. It was fast, light, small, and highly focused on the mobile experience … and it had a great docking solution. I always had all my stuff with me and I had only what I needed where I was. It didn’t have a PC Card slot (standard in it’s day), a floppy drive (standard in it’s day). Nor did it have a CD-ROM drive or wired ethernet. Those features were in the dock. Interesting.

So when I look at the Air I see the Duo with 14 years of speed improvement with a little wireless neatly tucked inside. Pretty cool, but in a way a sad statement of how slow we have innovated the conceptual design of a notebook computer.

What would break the mold and demonstrate real innovation in the market? Basically an oversized iPhone. So before you chronicle the sad efforts with pen based computing let me explain how this one could be different.

Firstly, the primary UI would be the iPhone Launcher. Windows is a crappy operating system for a pen interface. It always felt bolted on and clunky. The TabletPC too often tried to be everything to everyone – a useful desktop computer, notebook and tablet. My next mobile computer would be the ultimate digital notebook. What I am imagining is a flat (thin) device like the iPhone about 8×10 and less than an inch thick. There is no “cover,” only the touch screen like the iPhone. Perhaps Launcher could be modified to have dynamic icons that would be more like Dashboard widgets with mini views of your calendar, your notes and content on the web.

But what about a keyboard? First, you need to understand that my tablet would really be a portable display in disguise. The “dock” would be a stand for my tablet on my desk so I could use a standard keyboard when tapping away all day long at the office, connect to power and other interfaces. But … when I’m ready to go I just grab the “display” and I’m off.

Come one, what about a keyboard? When I’m on the plane or in a meeting, I would be able to invoke a software defined keyboard that takes up 30% of the screen (with transparency so it’s floating over your desktop and documents). In fact there would be several different versions of keyboard, one for landscape, one for portrait and one for two-hand gripping – the iPhone keyboard broken in two on each side of the display. And having a software defined keyboard would solve a tremendous problem in international markets – since they keyboard could easily be configured to be vastly different from English-centric QWERTY.

But alas, the breakthrough here is the observation that you don’t really need a keyboard for most of the stuff you do when you’re mobile. Think about it. When you’re away from your desk you do some typing but often we’re just surfing to a web site, peaking at e-mail or when on a plane, watching a movie or listening to music. Oh, and that bigger display would be sweet for watching videos when I’m away from my desk. And when I return I drop the display into the dock and in about an hour I’ll be ready to head off to my next appointment.

So there you have it. The first innovative notebook since the Duo.