The '$100 laptop' may be a glimpse of the future

No, not the price, unfortunately. I'm talking about the new all-screen clamshell.

You've no doubt heard of the "$100 laptop" project. The idea is to help poor kids around the world by providing them with simple, durable, usable and wireless laptops for downloading and using textbooks and educational software, playing games and communicating.

The first iteration, the XO 1.0 -- a.k.a. the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) laptop -- looks like a toy for baby aliens (fluorescent green with two antennas). Besides a few innovations, including mesh networking and a water-resistant rubberized keyboard, the laptop is largely comparable to today's ordinary low-cost laptops.

A prototype of the next version was unveiled last month, and it looks a lot like the laptop you're going to buy in five years. No, I'm not kidding. Your laptop will look and function more or less like the XO 2.0. It's a brilliant -- and prescient -- design.

The most conspicuous and best feature is that the bottom half of the clamshell is a screen, just like the top half. Here's what it looks like.

I've talked to a lot of readers and other users who say they'll never give up the tactile feedback of a real keyboard and many who don't want to let go of the mouse, either. But I believe most users will be willing to sacrifice both keyboard and mouse in order to take advantage of the all-screen laptop of the future.

The XO 2.0 clamshell form factor works in four ways (compared to just one with conventional laptops).

  • 1. Tablet mode. By opening the clamshell all the way, the two screens snap together in the middle to form one semicontinuous touch screen.
  • 2. Laptop mode. By laying the bottom flat and setting the top half at an angle, the bottom becomes the keyboard and touchpad, and the top functions as the screen, just like a conventional laptop, but the keyboard is on-screen and virtual.
  • 3. Book mode. When you the hold up the XO 2.0 like a book, the text can be displayed on two "pages," which can be "turned" virtually.
  • 4. Two-person mode. By setting the laptop open and flat like "tablet mode," but pressing an on-screen button, one screen orients up and the other down. If you set it on a table between two people, they both get their own properly oriented touch screen, which is great for games or any other two-person usage applications.

With today's desktops, software and usage models, the two-screen clamshell design of the XO 2.0 laptop may not appeal. But in five years, I believe everyone will intuitively understand why this is the best possible way to design a mobile computer because of four current trends and where they're taking us.

Trend No. 1: Multitouch, physics and gestures, oh my!

I've reported and prognosticated extensively in this space on the next generation or "third generation" of user interface (the first two generations being the command line and the graphical user interface).

This new user interface will dominate the operating systems from Microsoft, Apple, the Linux vendors and others. There will be qualitative differences, as always, in the next-gen versions of Windows, the Mac OS and Linux, but all will revolve around the three core elements: multitouch, gestures and physics. That's why I'm now calling this UI type the multitouch, physics and gestures UI, or MPG for short.

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