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Why Windows 8 hybrids won’t survive the test of history

Loyd Case | Sept. 11, 2012
Hybrids sound appealing on paper-who wouldn't want a tablet that can turn into a laptop, and vice versa?-but don't get too comfy with this oddball product category.

Much of the Windows 8 hardware news of the past two weeks has focused on tablet-laptop "hybrids"-devices that use various clever attachment schemes to marry touchscreen tablets with accompanying hardware keyboards. Hybrids sound appealing on paper-who wouldn't want a tablet that can turn into a laptop, and vice versa?-but don't get too comfy with this oddball product category.

Hybrids tend to have a limited lifespan, and reliable signs point to a computing future where we do most of our work on tablets packed with powerful internal components and complemented by killer accessory keyboards. Though tablet-laptop hybrids may ooze high-tech appeal in the short term, they're destined to become nothing more than curious footnotes in the greater record of PC history.

Don't believe me? First let's examine the value of hybrids in the here and now. After that, we'll explore their drawbacks, and then we'll look at how Windows 8 hardware of the future will eventually render hybrids obsolete.

Why hybrids make sense today

In coming months, Windows 8 will reshape how everyone thinks about tablets. Today no one considers the Kindle Fire, the Nexus 7, or even the iPad a legitimate productivity or business tool; but Windows 8 tablets will offer serious x86 horsepower, along with hooks into the Microsoft ecosystem, including Office.

That said, getting users to recognize tablets as systems for productivity, rather than just for media consumption, may be a tough sell.

Enter the upcoming generation of Windows 8 hybrids. The common element that all hybrids share is a detachable or fold-over screen that can act independently as a tablet. This gives us a full laptop with keyboard and separate pointing device when we're using productivity tools, and a tablet for on-the-go media consumption and casual Web browsing.

Providing basic tablet functionality along with a hardware keyboard would seem to strike a useful compromise. Indeed, hybrids let us explore the world of touch without abandoning no-nonsense data input; and they might be just what the Dells, Lenovos, and Fujitsus of the world need to prove that tablets literally mean business.

History tells us that users clamor for single devices that can do everything. As smartphones entered the mainstream, MP3 players became obsolete. And when is the last time you reached for your point-and-shoot camera? Among digital cameras, only DSLRs are immune to the threat of increasingly sophisticated smartphone cameras.

Windows 8 hybrids pose a similar threat to run-of-the-mill laptops. Tony Costa, a senior analyst with Forrester Research, says, "Hybrid laptops are rapidly blurring the distinction between tablets and laptops. What is emerging is a spectrum of tablet form factors that range from keyboard-first tablets-that is, hybrid laptops-to touch-first tablets that offer keyboards as an accessory. Within this context, yes, hybrid laptops will threaten the market share of traditional laptops."

Why hybrids are doomed to 'transitional' status


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