Apple knocked the laptop business sideways when the first iPad appeared in 2010.
It is a stripped-down computer with a touch-screen, sound and wireless connections. But there is no keyboard. It does many, but not all, the things laptops do.
The iPad is easy to use and portable. You can use one to browse the internet, write mail, watch movies and make video calls to friends. It shines when consuming media. Thousands of third-party apps extend its scope.
iPad as a computer
For many people, the iPad is all the computer they need.
But not everyone. Some need more computer. There are those who want a keyboard and those who prefer to use a conventional PC operating system.
Some iPad owners add third-party Bluetooth keyboards to use their tablets more like laptops.
About four years ago the first devices to bridge the gap between tablets and laptops appeared. Intel and Microsoft came up with computers that had elements of both.
Enter the Surface
Microsoft pitched it first Surface as a direct competitor to the iPad. It used a reduced version of Windows 8. Surface had built-in Microsoft Office. A kick-stand held the screen in a laptop-like position.
There was also a, in theory optional, keyboard that doubles as a screen protector. Almost everyone who bought a Surface also paid for the keyboard.
While the Surface looks like a tablet and has tablet-like features, it also looks like a laptop. Most people who own Surfaces use them like laptops as well as tablets.
Microsoft created a new device format distinct from the laptop and the tablet: the hybrid PC.
Moving from a clamshell Windows laptop to a Surface is less of a wrench than moving to an iPad.
Hybrids evolved since the first Surface. Today’s Surface Pro 4 is a direct descendant. There’s nothing you can do on a Windows laptop that you can’t do on a Surface Pro 4.
The Surface was Microsoft’s first own-brand PC. Other computer makers have since developed their own hybrid models.
There are two distinct types of hybrid. Detatchables are tablets with a keyboard case like the Surface or a docking keyboard.
When you connect the keyboard, you have something close to a laptop. You can remove the keyboard and use the computer as a tablet.
Convertables stay attached to their keyboards. In most designs a hinge lets you fold the keyboard out of the way under the touch-screen. It then acts like a tablet. You can usually fold the hinge to other positions, such as propped up on a table for a presentation.
There’s much to like about hybrids. They could be the way of the future. Yet despite growing sales numbers, customers remain unconvinced. Today hybrids of all types only account for between 10 to 15 percent of laptop sales.
Three reasons stand out for their relative lack of success to date.
Conservative PC owners
First, PC owners are conservative. Perhaps not in a bad way. People invested a lot of time and mental energy mastering keyboards, trackpads and mice. They know their way around a conventional PC or laptop and know how to get the productivity they want from it.
Touch screens have not captured thier imaginations in the way Microsoft anticipated. The botched Windows 8 introduction made that clear. Little has changed since.
Second, the hybrid features and touch screen add to the cost of a computer. You might pay 20 to 25 percent more for a hybrid which, otherwise, has the same specification as a laptop. Many people don’t see any value in that extra price.
Another reason is that a hybrid’s tablet functionality is often satisfied by another device. A laptop owner may already have an iPad or another brand of non-Windows tablet. There’s a better chance they’ll have a mobile phone with tablet-like qualities.
Computer buyers may yet move to hybrids if hardware companies can convinced them there’s extra value to justify the cost.
Help for this has come from an unexpected direction. Apple’s positioning and marketing of two iPad Pro models goes a long way to making the case for hybrid PCs. iPad Pros are still more tablet than PC. But they also have a lot in common with the best detatchable Windows hybrids.
Hybrids are often better than you might expect. Yet even the best still have signification shortcomings.
Few detachable hybrids have great keyboards.
Typing ranges from just-about-ok to horrible. This doesn’t matter to all users. But for those who write a lot of words, a good keyboard means greater productivity.
Most detachable hybrid keyboards flex. Making a keyboard that doesn’t flex often means making it heavier. That is bad news for portability.
Convertable hybrids tend to be more solid. That makes for a lousy tablet experience. You always carry a hefty keyboard along with the touch-screen tablet part of the device.
Most convertibles are too thick and heavy for comfortable one-handed use. This undermines the tablet functionality you paid extra for.
All the electronics and battery in a detachable hybrid need to be in the screen part of the device so it works as a tablet. This means it is top heavy when used as a laptop with the keyboard. For this reason most can’t work as laptops in the strict sense of sitting the computer on your lap.
Intel and Microsoft bet the Windows 8 move to touch screens in 2012 would trigger a wave of upgrades. Not only did that not happen, it was the start of a long-term slide in PC sales that continues.
Now the pair hope a move to hybrids will pay off with a renewed buying cycle. To do this they must not only convince customers of the value of paying extra for greater versatility. They must also show that buying a new device will make their work easier or their lives more fun.
This is something Apple excels at. Cynics talk of Apple’s fairy dust or a reality-distortion effect. The truth is Apple knows how to articulate technology’s less tangible benefits. Now Apple is selling something that is almost a hybrid, some of the magic may rub off on the Windows hybrids.