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

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During the Build 2013 conference keynote, Microsoft (s msft) 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.

11 Responses to “The hybrid might be Microsoft’s niche, but it’s still not the future”

  1. I only us a tablet in meetings. Occasionally, if I need to present and guide meeting attendees through processes using productivity software not available on the iPad, I use my MBP.

    The two things I am missing on the iPad is easy copy/paste from one app into another, like the old OLE and DDE from Microsoft, while preserving file formats, and an actual global file system to share files between apps. The later one can be mitigated via Dropbox to large extent.

    I think a Hybrid is an interesting idea. But for that you need software which is more powerful than tablet software. In the moment, Metro apps are quiet a bit more primitive than comparable apps on a tablet. On the other hand, desktop apps are hard to control via touch screen. While Splashtop, which gives tablet users a similar experience as a hybrid, by using processing from a nearby PC wirelessly, is awesome for what it is, I use it mostly for emergencies. In that sense, the hybrid of today is a step back.

  2. I’ve seen a few people bring their iPads to meetings – and they go right ahead and touch type on the screens without a problem.

    I dunno. If you go to a meeting and you can’t open a spreadsheet, it’s usually because you didn’t prepare before the meeting and make sure it would actually open.

  3. Hybrid is an Intel idea created to cover blaring weaknesses of X86; low power, thin design, Window 8 experience- Microsoft did an internal revamp of mobile Win 8/8.1 for the purpose of conserving electrons. Intel and AMD have not, to date, released a chip that can take advantage of battery life, thin design, and Windows 8 experience to satisfaction !!!

  4. Lars Händler

    Steve Ballmer trys to offer a solution for a problem that from my point of view does not exist.

    In our meetings tablets have taken over compared to laptops. Half of the people use tablet in meetings, the other half prefers pen and paper. And from time to time someone brings a laptop.
    For those of us (including me) that are much faster using a keyboard there are a number of external keyboards for tablets. My keyboard stays at my office all the. At home and on the train home I prefer the simplicity of a tablet.

    • That’s all well and good, but personally I still don’t wish to be stuck with a restrictive tablet, which is why I prefer a Windows 8 tablet (even without a keyboard) over an iPad.

      See, the best thing about my Windows 8 tablet is that I can use it for all my casual stuff at home and on the train. But I can also use it for all my work stuff as a laptop because it has Ultrabook internals and therefore runs all my Windows software too. Add to that the fact that it has connectivity to USB devices and multiple external monitors, it means I can also use it as a powerful PC desktop base unit where I keep my keyboard and mouse. And having a an integrated WACOM digitizer and pen further enhances it’s capabilities.

  5. So then what’s the future: scaled-up phones? As the processing power and battery life of tablets continue to get better and better, isn’t that just begging for a more powerful operating system? Why carry around a tablet with limited functionality when you don’t have to? (Or at least presumably in the future hardware would be good enough to run a full blown PC at an affordable price.) Personally, I think it would be interesting to see if someone could create an OS that could run seamlessly regardless of form factor — not sayin’ Windows has done that.

  6. Nonsense. Hybrids were unappealing previously because (a) they were expensive (cost > $2,000) and (b) the touch/pen experience sucked. Neither of those conditions is true anymore, and nothing beats having a real keyboard when you really need to work.

  7. Mark Holland

    A big desktop PC with a huge screen and a great keyboard is the best tool known for writing prose, code and else. It will never stop being so and Microsoft is foolish for diminishing it.

  8. obelia

    Balmer is lost. His question “How many of us…” is an attempt to promote a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. That never works. And the whole Xbox debacle – incredibly bad marketing.

  9. I have always believe that the problem is price. I use my phone all the time for what I would do on a tablet in meetings. I would prefer a hybrid but it needs the right combination of power and price. I have to be able to rely on it for 90% of what I do on a day to day basis, and ideally have it wirelessly connect to an external monitor, keyboard and mouse. It’s just not worth 1k or more for that device at the current levels of power. At 300 to 500 it will be work buying. But it has to be a uncompromising full windows 8 device.

    Today that might be to much to ask for, but a few years from now I don’t see why that is not possible. maybe five, because today’s devices don’t seem powerful enough at the 1k level. So first we need a surface that hits the right power at the 1k level and then we need to wait a few years for the price to hit the sub $500 level.

    Or Microsoft needs to just subsidize these things to get them out there and make money on the app store.

    I would also probably but a windows rt device if it was $200 or under. There is just no killer app that I have to have. Though the smart glass stuff with Xbox One is going to tug at me a bit. I’m still not going to go out of my way.

  10. Mcbeese

    “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.”

    Honestly? Never. iPad + Notes + iWork + ATV is a bullet-proof combination. Significantly less expensive than the Hybrid + Windows + Office combination. If there is a problem, it is almost always operator error.

    Now let’s turn the question around – How many of us have wasted time in meetings with people trying to make their Windows laptops mate properly with a projector? It’s better now, but I think Windows owes me about of a year of my life screwing around with F8, display setup, etc..