The hybrid might be Microsoft’s niche, but it’s still not the future


During the Build 2013 conference keynote, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer didn’t pull any punches on “traditional” tablets:

How many of us have gone to a meeting with somebody who brought a tablet and then when it comes time to actually take notes, writes them down on pencil and paper. Or can’t get at the spreadsheet…or try to use it in terminal emulator mode…or take [a long time] to set up and turn their tablet into something that approximates a PC.

The answer to this informercial-style flustering? The 2-in-1 hybrid PC, which utilizes a touchscreen interface and the tablet/PC OS Windows 8 (soon-to-be 8.1). Ballmer said that the 2-in-1 was the best of both worlds. The new must-have efficient tool. The wave of the future.

That sounds great, but it overlooks a big caveat: consumers have already voted with their wallets, and they’re not picking hybrid devices.

Ballmer has the right idea when he implies that PCs are a thing of the past. It’s true that for all intents and purposes, the PC is no longer the device of choice for most people. Tablet sales and PC sales will be even in 2014, according to research by Gartner. But these statistics also project the status of hybrids — referred to in the study as “ultramobiles.” While PC and tablet sales become more even, hybrids languish in fourth place with just over 2.5 million units by 2014 — a small fraction compared to tablets, PCs and phones.

A lot of the thinking behind why many are hesitant to embrace the hybrid is because its form factor contradicts the current trends in tech: tablets are meant to be scaled-up versions of a phone, not scaled-down versions of a PC. It sounds like semantics, but the minimalist and intuitive scope of the tablet goes hand-in-hand with its use: no frills, on-the-go computing. In fact, Microsoft already does this reasonably well with its Surface — which, from a hardware perspective, offers a pared down and portable system that embraces a lot of mobile qualities. A hybrid like the Lenovo Thinkpad Helix, while also at least $700 more expensive than the Surface, has a two-fold structure that unmistakably reads, “laptop.”

On top of that, the software on hybrids still strikes an uncomfortable middle road that doesn’t necessarily capture the ease of the tablet, nor the freedom of a PC. While Microsoft has sought to correct many quibbles with Windows 8, there’s still an overwhelming feeling that the apps are behind the curve of Android or iPad offerings, while remaining less flexible than any standalone computer. This is a recipe (or to use Ballmer’s word, “blend”) that Microsoft can’t afford to allow, and there needs to be a more unique feel for it to be a true draw. Combine the patchwork software of Windows 8 with the patchwork hardware of a hybrid, and the unevenness of both becomes more pronounced.

So what’s the answer? If Microsoft is completely committed to producing a blockbuster hybrid, then it needs to create a true one of its own and create a flagship for the trend. The hybrid could go where some laptops or tablets cannot in terms of unification and security, and a strategy to engage business customers as well as creative elements could create a hit.

But right now, Ballmer’s crystal ball doesn’t seem to see the future. Hybrid devices are only an answer to Microsoft’s dwindling PC numbers — it doesn’t fulfill consumer needs adequately enough to win out on the shelves.

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