Along with hard drives, there's been another constant in the notebook market: Microsoft Windows. But even here, change may be coming. This year, one in seven notebooks sold in the United States ran an OS other than Windows: the Mac OS X. Apple's share of the notebook PC market increased dramatically this year, and with the impending release of the Leopard version of the OS, it's on track to continue growing next year.
Linux made gains this year, as well, as first Dell and then Lenovo announced they would sell notebooks with Linux loaded, citing customer demand. The upcoming Palm Foleo runs a Linux distro from Wind River, as well.
The Foleo, in fact, may be the clearest indicator so far of a relationship between changes in the hardware and changes in the operating system. The Foleo has no hard drive. It uses flash for storage, with a relatively small amount (much smaller than a SSD) built in and card connectors for more. It's an instant-on device, and the user interface is non-windowing -- only one application can be open at a time. (It works very much like a Palm PDA, in fact.)
All these design factors work together to hold down the demand for computer power, which means the Foleo can run well on a low-power, low-speed processor -- which means it doesn't need a fan, either. No hard disk, no fan, and a low-power processor all add up to maximize the battery life. And that in turn means that a device with a total weight of 2.5 pounds and a list price of $600 can pack enough battery power to light up a 10-inch screen for five hours, according to the spec sheet. (This year you can buy notebooks with similar specs, like the Sony Vaio VGN TXN15P , but you'll pay almost four times as much.)
Linux is also fostering innovation in other areas. Leslie Fiering is very interested in the XO notebook from the One Laptop Per Child project. "Its Linux-based UI for kids is much more intuitive," she says. "This kind of specialized interface for users is one of the pluses you can get from Linux."
Linux isn't for everybody, she admits, "especially for Windows people who have their applications and know how to use them." But the operating system will be one more subject of experimentation for notebook makers over the next year.
"The problem is figuring out what the big winner will be," says Richard Brown. "It's a bit tricky to predict, like the iPhone in the phone market, where Apple came from left field."
Next year, as this year, the safe bets will be on incremental improvements:lighter ("six pounds is the new eight pounds," as Paul Moore put it); brighter, with LED backlighting technology; more power-thrifty with the Centrino Plus platform; better performing with Turbo Memory; or a hybrid hard drive to give Windows Vista a little kick.
One area for experimentation next year will be secondary screens, Fiering predicts, either beside the main screen or in the lid. There's support for the concept in Windows Vista's Sideshow features, but, she says, vendors are reluctant because the users aren't familiar with it. "But it will come because vendors need innovations like these to keep their margins up. Otherwise notebooks are becoming pretty standard."
Finally, style may play a bigger role in your purchase decision next year, according to Moore, who cites HP's success with its designer laptops and sees an analogy to 1954, when "GE introduced the first color appliances, and people started designing kitchens."
Bottom line: if you were hoping that 2008 might bring that 8-hour, 1.5-pound, connect-to-anything, $500 notebook, it looks like you may have to wait a little longer. But there will be a lot of interesting tweaks that will make next year's notebooks worth waiting for. And keep your eye on left field.