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Ye Olde Laptops

Computing in public isn’t odd. So why are laptops suddenly odd?

If you live in a dense metropolitan area, public transit is a way of life. Subways and other trains, busses and taxis, and some rarer transportation life forms like Ducktours in Singapore and Tuk-Tuks in Bangkok all serve to get us huddling masses from point a to point b without much thought on our part. And hey, while you’re en route, why not get a bit of work done?

Before the turn of the century, computing on the go was a luxury reserved mostly for politicians and businessmen in power suits. Blackberries, at first, helped smartphones keep that same cachet, but Apple’s iBook (the laptop, not the app and bookstore) and cheap HP and Dell laptops had long-since become common among the rest of us. It’d almost have been odder to sit in an airport lounge without a laptop than with one, and pulling one out on the train — provided there was ample seating and no one needed your chair — wouldn’t have been an odd sight.

That wasn’t long to change, though. Once smartphones and modern tablets burst onto the scene, laptops started being the new desktop and looked rather odd on the train. It’s normal to peck at your touchscreen while standing in a crowded train, but typing on a 13” laptop? How quaint.

Just a few months ago, I was riding the Bangkok BTS mid-morning, with plenty of empty seats around me. I was going to be en route for a half hour, so why not get some work done on my MacBook Air?

So I started writing, and got about 15 minutes worth of stuff done while riding. And nothing happened — except for the fact that everyone on the train looked at me like they were seeing a ghost.

Of course, everyone else on said train was looking at their own computers — only theirs were 4 inch phone screens, or 7 inch tablets (yes, even the full-sized iPad is starting to look large in public, at the same time the iPhone is looking too small compared to Galaxy Notes. It’s a strange world). Surely a 13” screen isn’t so odd. But it was.

And yet, what’s actually odd is that everyone was using laptops in public just a few years back. That’s actually odd, if you really think about what most people were doing. They were carrying around a full computer just to browse Facebook on public Wifi, or at best answer some emails and browse the web. There’s always people actually getting real work done on laptops on trains and waiting rooms, but that’s not the majority.

So now, we’ve got devices that actually make more sense for on-the-go computing. It’s not so much that smartphones made online chat possible, it’s that they made it practical anywhere. eReaders and tablets didn’t invent eBooks — I’ve read full books on a BlackBerry-style Windows Phone in the past, of all things, and of course have read many on Macs and PCs — but they made them practical. Google Maps was always something nice on the PC, as Mapquest was before that, but smartphones and tablets made them practical in ways they’d never have been before. In the same way VisiCalc made PCs make sense for business customers, Google Maps and WhatsApp and Facebook made smartphones make sense for everyone.

There’s still spreadsheets and AutoCad, app development and video editing, and so much more that makes more sense on a laptop. Those are the PC and Mac killer apps — the very reason we buy them. And if you really need them, it’s worth lugging around a laptop.

But that comes with a problem. See, no matter how light and thin laptops become, they’re still large machines. They block your vision, take up a rather significant of lap or airplane tray space, and make you look like you’re in a displaced cubical. Tablets and smartphones, for all their faults, make you look more available, more social — even if you’re really being a zombie behind your tiny screen. You’re not the guy taking up a seat on the train anymore, you’re just someone else holding a tiny piece of aluminum and glass when you’re using your smartphone. But a laptop? Go back to the office, dinosaur.

And yet, that doesn’t quite make sense, either. The very idea of laptops is to be able to work from anywhere, and that’s good. It’s just that most people don’t need full computing anymore for the work they’d do on the go.

And somehow, for the very same reason, I don’t happen to think laptops — PCs and Macs in general, at that — are going away anytime soon. Smartphones are better at some things, tablets at others, and PCs still have their place. As do servers, and to a degree mainframes. It’s just like Steve Jobs said: PCs are trucks, and everyone doesn’t need a truck.

In fact, if you’re still driving a truck, everyone in the city might look at you like you’re a freak on the highway. But you’re getting the work you need done, and their tiny compact gets their work done. Neither is right, neither is wrong.

Originally published in Techinch Magazine Issue 8

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