2 in 1 Laptops and the Future of the Notebook

on August 12, 2015

I have been a big fan of portable computers for decades. I have traveled constantly since I joined Creative Strategies in 1981 and have needed some type of portable computer in order to work and communicate from wherever I have happened to be since. My first portable computer was the Tandy TRS 80, sold by Radio Shack, It had a two line black and white display. But it had a 90 baud modem in it so I could access bulletin boards and send files to my clients and editors via a telephone and be productive while traveling.

Over the years, I have carried early portable computers (called “luggables”) like the early Compaq Computer to 8-10 pound clamshells and other models that, until recently, weighed at least 5-6 pounds.

Thankfully, the technology for creating portable computers has evolved and, via the miniaturization of components and advancements in displays and batteries, PC vendors are now creating lightweight laptops with brilliant screens that can last up to 10-12 hours on a single battery charge. Now when I hit the road, I carry the 12” MacBook that weighs just over 2 lbs and has a battery that lasts up to 10 hours.

Interestingly, the market for laptops for decades followed a rather straight forward design and used what is called a clamshell form factor. In fact, even today, 95% of all laptops sold are based on a clamshell design. But about four years ago, some laptop makers made a slight design detour and introduced something called 2 in 1s, or portable computers that could be a laptop as well as a tablet. Microsoft’s Surface computers are a good example of this. This move was prompted by Apple’s original iPad and the fear a tablet could replace a laptop. Now all PC vendors have some version of these new designs in their line. Some are similar to Microsoft’s Surface in that the screen is detachable while others are like the Lenovo Yoga in which the screen flips around the back and turns it into a tablet.

Ironically, it was this 2 in 1 concept that drove Microsoft’s Windows 8 OS design. Microsoft became so bullish on touch screens and rushed to market a product that was optimized for touch even though their PC partners had only a few touch-based computers in their lineup. Even worse, consumers were not clamoring for touch-based systems and Windows 8 was a dud. But now that Microsoft has made Windows 10 more versatile and made it easy to switch between an older mouse driven OS and a touch based OS, they and their PC partners want to drive this 2 in 1 concept into mainstream computing and especially into all laptops.

I have been testing the Lenovo Yoga and a Microsoft Surface Pro and personally like the option of the tablet/laptop functionality. But I question whether everyone will want a 2 in 1 in the future. My Dell XPS 13 is a normal laptop with a touch screen and, as a productivity tool, it works just fine. Adding touch screens to laptops makes sense since Windows 10 is a rich OS now optimized for touch. But for most business people, as well as students, research shows they still want a traditional laptop as opposed to a laptop that works both ways. They are bringing standalone tablets into the workplace and schools in large numbers to augment their productivity but are not really asking for their laptops to be a tablet, too. Even consumers are balking at buying 2 in 1s in any large numbers.

But the PC industry believes 2 in 1s are the future of portable computing and is gearing up to try and drive them into the designs of most laptops in the future. The key reason is, with today’s desktop and laptops, the PC industry has hit a wall. Demand for PCs have been in the negative each year for the last three and it shows no sign of ever growing again. But they believe if they can convince people the best portable is a 2 in 1 of some type, this could drive a huge refresh or replacement rates and it would get the PC market growing again.

I have my doubts that 2 in 1s will drive new growth, but there is a possible development from a competitor that actually could help them with their cause. There is a lot of speculation Apple will soon introduce a 12.9-inch tablet that, with a third party keyboard, could be used as a computer or tablet. Apple’s influence on the market is so big that, if Apple endorsed the 2 in 1 idea in any way, it could validate the PC industry’s position on this and get more people interested in these Windows-based 2 in 1s. Either way, get ready for the PC industry to try and push people to buy 2 in 1s with the idea that this is the future of portable computing.