Wireless Built the Notebook Boom

macbookairYesterday’s news that notebooks had overtaken PCs in the number of units sold last quarter owes a huge debt to Wi-Fi and a smaller one to 3G cellular networks. Without those Intel unwired commercials and images of folks surfing the web at Starbucks or sitting in parks, notebooks would still be expensive toys of road warriors. My bet is, in the next decade, those using desktops will be researchers, engineers and people needing access to computers closer in size and performance to desktop supercomputers. That, and folks who want to use a desktop as a media server.

The rest of us will tote ultra-thin laptops (especially if Dell releases a sweet one that’s not too pricey), laptops, netbooks and smartphones that have screen sizes between 3 and 5 inches — likely two of these options. So what does this mean for the electronics industry?

  • More silicon packed into the computers in the form of varying radios for communicating with everything from Wi-Fi and GPS to a variety of 3G and 4G cellular networks. Qualcomm’s (s qcom) Gobi platform or Broadcom’s (s BRCM) integrated chip strategy is going to play well here.
  • A fight between efficiency and power will pave the way for alternative chip architectures. Shrinking an x86 processors as Intel (s INTC) has done with Atom is good, but it doesn’t create an ideal mobile device because it still requires too much power. ARM architecture in chips from Qualcomm and Texas Instruments (s TXN) use far less power, while combo x86/GPU platforms such as Nvidia’s (s nvda) ION platform would offer far more performance.
  • Form will matter as much as function, because a computer that’s used in public will need to reflect a certain sense of style. Apple (s APPL) wins big in this category, but Dell (s DELL) and other vendors are trying to enhance both their actual designs and their brands.
  • Anyone coming up with a lighter or longer-lasting battery will make a bundle (provided it doesn’t explode), and those focused on less power-hungry displays such as organic, light-emitting diodes could also win big. Sony (s sne), Samsung, and scores of university researchers are tackling these problems.

There are plenty of other things that will change, from the way we integrate mobile computing into society and social rituals (anyone sat down to eat lately with people who take photos of their food with their phones to send to their Facebooks pages?), to the tasks we ask those devices to perform. Faster wireless networks in the form of LTE and WiMAX, or cheaper ones in the form of white spaces, will make this transition accessible from a cost and network speed perspective. Let’s get mobile.