Stop Talking about Replacements. Give PC Owners Something New Already!

The marketing machine around 2-in-1s has been at full speed for a few years now. As Windows 8 was coming to market, hardware vendors, Intel, and Microsoft all put their thinking caps on to see how they could take advantage of the new OS to sell new PCs.

A Recap

Between the beginning of 2011 and the fall of 2012, tablet sales, in particular iPads, were ramping up. The Windows camp was very eager to position tablets as being inferior to PCs while acknowledging the more mobile form factor was something Windows was embracing and, with it, a more touch-friendly interface. At the same time, Apple was eager to position iPads more like smartphones than PCs. Why not? Consumers were certainly buying more of the former than the latter. Around that time, we started to see 2-in-1s and hybrids surface as a label for devices that looked like a notebook but had a detachable screen that could be turned into a tablet.

Fast forward two years and, at the 2014 CES, Intel started promoting notebooks that not only doubled as tablets but also ran Microsoft’s as well as Android’s operating system. Some called these “PC Plus”. This attempt to make up for the shortfalls of the Windows 8 touch experience by adding Android did not really sit well with consumers, especially as most of those devices were priced much higher than any single OS hybrid. Needless to say by spring, that endeavor was abandoned and so was the term.

Two years later and here we are. Windows 10 got to market and, with a redesigned UI, the focus on touch has increased. The term 2-in-1 is in full flow and so is the animated discussion about what device would be the perfect PC replacement. Camp Windows and Camp Apple both are trying to convince users that the new tablet plus keyboard design is the perfect one although each camp thinks, of course, they have the best solution.

It is understandable that, with close to one billion consumer PCs in use, the interest in wanting users to upgrade what they have is strong as is the temptation to think in terms of replacement. I’ve pointed out in the past how consumers with old PCs are really not engaged with them as they relegated the least appealing tasks like file management (all be it, important in their eyes) to these devices.

Replacement Does Not Scream Exciting

I have never been a fan of the term 2-in-1 as it sounds more like a compromise than a best of both worlds. I am even less of a fan of this obsession with wanting to place a new category of devices — a tablet with a keyboard or a notebook with a detachable screen — as a replacement for a PC. I struggle to understand why anyone would care to replace something that does not play a very important role in their life. If they did, replacement for me implies a like-for-like substitution which certainly does not help the new devices. Of course, consumers expect technology to improve and so they know what they buy today will not be the same as what they had. Yet, if they are thinking in terms of replacement, they will not be looking to do new exciting things, they will not look to spend more time with it, they will not be proactively curious about what the combination of the new OS plus the new hardware will offer.

Think about the different experiences you go through when you are buying, say, a comfy pair of shoes to wear at work all day or to help you survive a trade show. The experience is very different than when you go out looking for a pair heels. Or, when your family car must be replaced as opposed to when you are out looking for your own sports car. For the first search, reliability and quality are certainly important but budget might be capped vs the second search which will see an added irrational component to it.

This is why I feel strongly that vendors should move away from positioning devices as a PC replacement. Consumers have proven they are willing to buy things that do not directly replace anything. Smartphones are the best examples. When we started to buy those, and mobile phones before them, we did not buy them to replace our home phone. Initially, it was about taking the “phone experience” out of the home. Later, it was about doing much more by adding the internet and new apps and taking the mobile computer experience out of the home. Some of what we were doing was something we used to do on our PCs but consumers were not thinking about it that way. We have also witnessed that, while familiarity might help in some cases, if something is compelling and easy enough to use, it will take off. The iPhone did not really look like something we had before nor was it positioned as the replacement for something.

Vendors in the Windows ecosystem should focus on:

  1. mobility at no compromise, which goes beyond hardware to embrace cloud and software
  2. richness of apps in both repertoire and quality
  3. new features that Windows 10 brings, some of which are linked to touch and pen input which would not be familiar to older PC users but that they more likely than not use regularly with their phones and tablets.

It is about giving consumers something new they can get excited about and, most importantly, something that will play an important role in their day to day lives.

Be Smart, Don’t Limit Your Opportunity With A Label!

Talking about replacements is as bad as wanting to put your device in direct competition with a specific category. Because of the form factor of the 2-in-1s and the current marketing, consumers see them differently. For some consumers, 2-in-1s are a PC, for others they are a tablet and for still others, a new category in its own right. This is why any communication about being better than a PC or better than a tablet only risks taking out a chunk of the market opportunity. There are also devices like the Surface and the iPad Pro that transcends all labels — something I will have to explore in a separate article.

Published by

Carolina Milanesi

Carolina is a Principal Analyst at Creative Strategies, Inc, a market intelligence and strategy consulting firm based in Silicon Valley and recognized as one of the premier sources of quantitative and qualitative research and insights in tech. At Creative Strategies, Carolina focuses on consumer tech across the board. From hardware to services, she analyzes today to help predict and shape tomorrow. In her prior role as Chief of Research at Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, she drove thought leadership research by marrying her deep understanding of global market dynamics with the wealth of data coming from ComTech’s longitudinal studies on smartphones and tablets. Prior to her ComTech role, Carolina spent 14 years at Gartner, most recently as their Consumer Devices Research VP and Agenda Manager. In this role, she led the forecast and market share teams on smartphones, tablets, and PCs. She spent most of her time advising clients from VC firms, to technology providers, to traditional enterprise clients. Carolina is often quoted as an industry expert and commentator in publications such as The Financial Times, Bloomberg, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. She regularly appears on BBC, Bloomberg TV, Fox, NBC News and other networks. Her Twitter account was recently listed in the “101 accounts to follow to make Twitter more interesting” by Wired Italy.

17 thoughts on “Stop Talking about Replacements. Give PC Owners Something New Already!”

  1. I’m always puzzled when I read that Cloud helps mobility. It only does when you’ve got a connection, which is far from all the time, whether wifi or data. Furthermore, that connection needs to be speedy, which is even rarer. 100% rule: if Cloud doesn’t *always* help mobility, then it can’t be counted as helping mobility. Look at it the other way round: early Chromebooks were sharply criticized for depending on a permanent ‘net connection, hence not being very mobile. One of the first features ChromeOS added was the ability to work off-line. Can’t have it both ways…

    re. 2-in-1s, I think the implied message is that they save money by doing double or triple duty, and also bringing a lot of indirect savings savings (only 1 device to admin/secure/backup, 1 copy of each app to buy, no futzing around keeping configs/data.. in sync). That’s an entreprise-oriented message, especially because the hardware savings are just not there, buying a desktop + tablet or laptop + tablet is a lot less expensive, especially once you factor in the 2-in-1s accessories; the admin etc… savings only kick in for corps. PLus at least in my case, I prefer several devices, screens, batteries… regardless of price. Adding a 10″ and an 8″ tablet to my bag makes zero difference, having extra screens to put up reference stuff and keep an eye on messages and news while working does.

    Also, that double duty is about the only ammo MS has to target Mobile. Win10 devices suck as tablets because lack of apps and iffy Metro mode: I’ve got 2 Win10 tablets, luckily they’re dual-boot… they spend 90+% of their time in Android, the remainder is mostly Office work when gDocs won’t do. MS has no choice but to hype 2-in-1iness, and hope people will bear with Win10/Touch for the sake of Win10/Desktop.

    1. I do think there is a difference between the Cloud _helping_ mobility vs _solving_ mobility. It does _help_. And between cellular and wifi there are more options to get online in more places than there used to be. I am just surprised no one is going full bore adding cellular to laptops without a dongle. I am sure there are reasons. I know I can use my smartphone as a hotspot for my laptop. I just wish I didn’t have to.

      Even when the laptop was king of mobile, the point of tension was always (and often still is) keeping my desktop work synched with the laptop or vice versa.

      IMO the 2 in 1 message is also saving complexity as much as an implication of saving money. As you say, it doesn’t take much to figure out you aren’t saving that much money if at all. But if the reason I am not buying a tablet (especially at this point in market maturity) is because I just wouldn’t use it that much, then my next laptop could just as easily be a 2 in 1 and save myself the hassle of juggling two devices.

      I think you are spot on that 2 in 1 is the only ammo MS has left. And because it is the only ammo MS has left it is also the only ammo most PC makers have left, too. I think this article does a good job of pointing out why this is ultimately a failing strategy.


      1. I seem to remember laptops with cellular. Hold on… that’s back in 2014, they’ve kept it up in newer models (obviously not all, but some). HP and Lenovo are the ones I hear most about on that topic. I think the main issue is contract prices, a dedicated contract for a laptop when there’s a tetherable phone right next to it is… gluttony ?

        As for synching, I think that’s were the confusion is from: you don’t need Cloud to synch between known devices. BitTorrent Sync does it peer-to-peer over the LAN, at extremely high speeds, much faster than going back and forth across xDSL. I’m using it for sync and even for quick and dirty backups, it’s utterly transparent and a cinch to set up, and there are no total nor directory nor file size limits, there are even rich options (additive backup only, read-only, synch both ways, journalling, temporary access…) when you dig into it.

        1. Yeah, I’ve seen a few laptops with cellular. I’m just surprised there aren’t more, or at least without being the exception rather than the norm.

  2. I have yet to see anyone who is not a journalist or tech pundit think highly of 2-in-1s. If the screen is small enough to make for a practical tablet, then it’s too small (as in netbook sized) to be useful for the bigger-screen tasks that are best done on a laptop. If the screen is big enough to be useful for laptop-type tasks, then it’s too darn big/heavy for comfortable use as a tablet.

    And yes, I regard the 13″ ipad pro as too big/heavy for comfortable use as a tablet — it’s designed for artists in need of a sketchpad or for workers who plan to use it resting on a table, but for holding, tablet-style, it’s awkwardly oversized. And the 13″ ipad is a lot thinner and lighter than most 2-in-1s.

    1. I think that’s personal preference.
      I find my 10″ tablet too small even for tablet-y things (such as web browsing, I always need to pan & zoom or use the “phone” site), I’m much happier with my new 12″. And that 12″ is OK with me for a lot of (though not all, say 80%) laptop-y tasks (my laptops were 10″ and 13″), especially combined with my 8″ secondary tablet and/or my 7″ phablet as second and 3rd screens w/ Pushbullet + Chrome/Opera tab sync that allow me to “multitask” across several devices while keeping all apps full screen on their dedicated device (typical setup is work, reference, messaging+news)
      Also, 10″ did not make enough of a difference with the phablet, I wasn’t even taking it out of my bag for movies on the train/plane/lunch break because I’m lazy and 7″ is good enough, going up to 10″ was not enough to make me get up and extract it from my bag.
      And finally, even 10″ was a bother to hold aloft, I was always looking for a way to set it down on a table or my knees. 12″ doesn’t change that, for me at least. I’m sure some need must use their tablet while moving around, and to them 12″ must make a difference. Not sure they’re more than a niche.
      Comments on Windows-oriented sites (, SuperSite for Windows even Ars) are mostly very positive about Surfaces (aside from some firmware/quality glitches). Apparently Surface satisfaction is equal the iPad’s: . There are your non-journalists “think highly of”.

  3. What an interesting mosaic, I liked the piece about shoes vs. sports car dilemma.
    Looking at PC vs. mobile I would say yes, a cloud is super important. Going further, we are either at home with a private cloud and our gadgets we set up the way we like or in a public with a public cloud, right? I don’t 100% believe in a security of a public could (VPN etc.) Then, of course, it would be preferable to have a cloud “always on”. When I was in London they have WiFi networks in a subway that many people use for f.messaging for example. If you use a Chrome, there is always an option to see all your bookmarks where you left them, doesn’t matter on which device. Then for PC you could place them on the table and use a wireless charging to be less strangled with with wires. TVs or displays present a space challenge for small spaces, since you need to sit at a certain distance from the display. Text is especially challenging to see at a small distance. So if the text is not super important, it would be easier to use see-through displays, where you can sit on the both sides of the display. This is why Office 365 efforts for propagating to consumer PCs may fall short of consumer expectations.

  4. Umm, the decline in PC sales is due to life-cycle replacement going WAYY up. I personally have an HP that I bought in 2007 that is running Win10 perfectly fine with an upgraded HDD and memory. I also work for a school district that is using thousands of Dell optiplex 330 desktops which I want to say are 7 or 8 years old. Something like the iPad (or any Apple product) is susceptible to Apples own ‘planned obsolescence’ which makes the overall cost of owning their machines too high. By the time people start realizing they are on their 3rd iPad but that damn desktop in the basement still works, Apple will come to be known for the crap that it really is.
    Furthermore, that 9 year old desktop I own is about to be retired (finally). After having gone through a demo of the HTC VIVE I have found that I MUST own one. In order for it to work I need an i5 processor and something greater than a GTX970. I personally would like an i7 with a GTX1080 but we will see. That alone will cost me a grand then I can spend another $800 to get the vive – but the entertainment value of it is worth it from what I experienced.

    VR will help sell desktops over the next few quarters, as will windows 10.

      1. The experience itself. I know it sounds overboard, but wearing one of those things is an experience. I can actually see it being an issue with people not wanting to take them off.
        Some people like to lose themselves in a tv show, a movie or a book – but it takes time to build that with the viewer/reader. VR is Instant and it’s so good your own mind is fooled at some points.
        I went through a demo at an MS store near Chicago. One of the things they had me do was explore an underwater ship wreck. As I was doing so a giant whale swam right up to me (it is ridiculous how big they are) and it’s eye was like 3 feet from me. As I reached out to touch, it swam away. It’s giant tail fin slammed down in front of me and I swear I could feel the faintest swoosh of water – which is nuts because I was standing in the front of a store in a mall – no where near water.
        It is expensive right now – but – it’s so good I can see a lot of people thinking the price is fine considering the type and quality of entertainment you get from it.

    1. My first MacBookPro, the 17″ from 2008 is still in active use, as is my iPad3… All running the latest OS. Even my iPhone 4s continues to serve as my backup phone.

      The problem with iPad is that they can easily last a decade or more. Try loading the latest Photoshop on your desktop in the basement…

    2. You hit the nail on the head. People buy new computers for an improved experience, and if you don’t get an improved experience, there is no reason to buy.

      It is not that computers today are not vastly superior in processing power–they are. If I’m using my computer to compile chromium from source, I want my current rig that will do it in an hour over a five-year-old machine that will take 12 hours or more. But should I buy a new comp just to open up a browser and surf the web? Nah, the new tech doesn’t improve the experience over the old. Until we start getting software that demands greater processing power–and we actually feel the need to have said software–people aren’t gonna buy new computers. Also, software development is getting better overall as the field matures and the competition increases, and we are getting better, more functional software while that same software is also lighter and requires less grunt from the computer; this is more reason not to buy new. Perhaps VR applications will do it, as you say, but my gut says that will remain a rather niche category for enthusiasts and will not have a significant impact on PC sales overall.

      One last point–people in general are far more computer literate and capable than they used to be. Someone in their 30’s, and many in their 40’s today grew up with a computer in the home. That wasn’t true a decade ago. There isn’t the same amount of mystery to the computer for people now as there was in the past. If you want to know why any number of things are so different now when it comes to the category of computers, be it sales or anything else, this is an important factor that should not be ignored. While sales of complete oem machines may be way down, sales of after-market components are not suffering in the same way. I won’t ever buy a fully new computer because I will upgrade components one at a time, until after a few years, not a single part of the computer is the same as it was years before, but I still can’t call it a “new computer” as only one or two parts in it at any given time are relatively new. I am far from the only person who does this. The further in time we get from when people didn’t have computers or understand them, the more people will buy components, not computers.

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