2 in 1 Laptops and the Future of the Notebook

Tim Bajarin / August 12th, 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.

Tim Bajarin

Tim Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981 and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others.
  • obarthelemy

    I think a lot depends on the execution. Convertibles need both smart software that morphs the tablet into a bit of a PC (mouse, at least split-screen multitasking) and good hardware, ie not just any keyboard but one that actually holds the tablet for lap typing, with extra storage and battery, and ports to morph into a desktop while we’re at it. And a choice of sizes, laptops go from 10″ to 17″ for a reason.
    Right now, no ecosystem fits the bill, for lack of devices and/or OS/apps versatility. Windows would indeed come the closest, but tablet apps are still unsatisfactory.
    Maybe an Apple entry would validate the market and motivate the players. Windows and Android already have larger tablets and convertibles though. Asus in particular have had an Android convertible for years, and have been keeping the line updated. Too bad they haven’t followed Samsung, HP and Lenovo and made 12-13″ devices.

    • Tim Bajarin

      Rumors have Apple doing a 12.9 inch model….this could be interesting

  • Whirlwinder

    I really like my ipad air with a case that contains a bluetooth keyboard. Works great!

  • Mark Langston

    I still believe both markets — individual tablets and laptops — can and will coexist.

    We can’t forget what Steve Jobs said about the iPad when it was first introduced; basically that a device between the iPhone and the MacBook had to be able to do things neither product could do, and he was right. Browsing the web, reading a book/magazine, playing a game; apps that focused on anatomy, astrology or recipes are better experienced on an iPad.

    If Apple really thought the iPad was the ONLY method we’d ever need they would’ve slowly but surely killed the MacBook or consolidated the MacBook down to a Pro-only version leaving a significant enough price gap between that and an iPad with a Surface-like keyboard.

    As for the 2-in-1’s, I agree that not many people really want them but that’s mostly because of Windows in general. For all of Microsoft’s efforts the Windows brand just isn’t sexy. They have no mobile presence to speak of and other than promoting scribbling on web pages and talking to Cortana there are no must-have apps for Windows 10. And that’s what the market wants: killer apps and/or experiences they can’t get elsewhere.

    The fact that Microsoft is already working on a Cortana beta for Android — and will eventually arrive on iOS — is even less reason to invest in Windows-based system. Never mind that almost every new Microsoft app released these days becomes available for iOS and/or Android before it ever shows up on a Windows-based phone if ever.

    What we really need to look out for is iOS 9 and the future of the iPad. True multitasking is really gonna change the game and you can bet that 3rd party partners and developers will be there to show off experiences that rival anything from Microsoft. And that’s the strength that Apple will demonstrate to compel consumers to pony up $500+ for a shiny new iPad that can run apps side-by-side.

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