Why Thin Is In: Portable Has Never Been Portable, Until Now

According to Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster (you know, the guy who is usually wrong), Apple is selling a whole mess of MacBook Airs and iPads this year. Sadly, his assessment is based on seven hours spent in Apple stores across the country, but the limited data his efforts have provided does point to some clear trends that we’ve been following over the past few months.

As we discussed this morning, PC growth is slow but constant. Desktop towers are, however, the last thing on most folks minds these days. Devices like the iPad capture the imagination and, more important, they are the first devices to be truly portable.

For most of the past decade, we’ve suffered under a the yoke of slow progress. Laptops ranged from about 4 pounds on the very low end all the way up to twenty pounds on a very bad day. Generally, however, the average fleet laptop – think the ThinkPad or a nice Dell Inspiron – weighed in at about 10 pounds, all told, with extra battery and power adaptor. That was quite a bit to carry around, especially with all of the accoutrements.

Ignoring the odd gaming laptop fanatics, portable devices in general came in two sizes: big enough to hurt you while racing for your flight and big enough to replace your boat anchor in a pinch and they were very expensive. This also reduced the desire in the average user to buy a powerful laptop and led us to the dark period known as the netbook revolution when laptop owners, seeing these amazingly thin yet underpowered devices, thought they could get something done with them. Sadly, the confluence of power, usability, and cloud interconnection only just really meshed recently. Except for the underpowered netbook, there was nothing that you could carry that could get most of your work done with minimal fuss.

Now, however, we’ve entered an interesting period in portability. Devices that were once too underpowered to be useful – namely tablets and cellphones – are becoming true assets and because most work is now on the cloud, we can get away with only carrying a tablet to a sales meeting. This doesn’t mean that devices like the iPad and the Galaxy Tab can replace a full laptop. However, they can act as word processors, presentation editors, and spreadsheet noodling devices in a pinch.

More important, however, is the rise of useful networked media devices. Rather than have a full-sized laptop on the coffee table we have the surprisingly usable new MacBook Air and by the bedside we have an iPad. I haven’t tuned on my MacBook Pro in a long time. Maybe MG was right after all.

Everyone and their dog is coming out with real portable devices next year. CES will be awash with them. From Acer to RIM to HP it’s like the netbook revolution writ large – but with one crucial difference: these new devices will be superbly usable and amazingly light, which should make road-weary travelers much happier in 2011.