Few people have the kind of clout that their off-the-cuff asides qualify as world news.
Apple CEO Tim Cook is such a person. His ad-libbed comment during this week’s company earnings call about “convergence” devices has inspired more online buzz than a Kardashian marriage.
Answering a question about whether an Apple tablet-laptop hybrid is inevitable, Cook said convergence shouldn’t be done for convergence’s sake. Then, to illustrate his point, Cook appeared to take the first two kitchen appliances that popped into his head.
A refrigerator-toaster hybrid was theoretically possible, he said, but it wouldn’t work as well as either product individually.
In response, the Internet exploded. Cook’s comment went viral, partly because of the imagery of the example, but mainly because it was a clear dig at the competition.
And he wasn’t talking about Android. In the lead-up to Windows 8, many manufacturers have showed off prototype laptop-tablet hybrids. In fact, a big chunk of Microsoft’s strategy for Windows 8 tablets rests on convergence: your tablet and PC are one and the same.
The Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga is probably the most famous — and arguably the best — example of the hybrid idea. It’s an ultra-thin notebook (or “Ultrabook”) whose monitor can fold over a complete 360 degrees to become a tablet. The keyboard automatically switches itself off, so you needn’t worry about knees touching the keyboard in tablet mode.
The Yoga has generated a lot of excitement due to its compelling design. But is it useful? Do designs like the Yoga (and some of these other prototypes) really address a need?
To answer this question, look to Cook’s predecessor, Steve Jobs. When Jobs unveiled the first iPad, he made a powerful case for its existence. In that 2010 keynote, Jobs said a tablet had to justify its existence by being better at some key activities — web browsing, reading, using email and watching video, in the iPad’s case — than a laptop or phone.
Sixty-seven million iPads later, and I think we can safely say the iPad has filled the niche it was designed to fill. Still, people still use both tablets and laptops. Wouldn’t it be easier to just have one device?
Easier, yes, but not better. Or more precisely, the experience surrounding those activities is lessened, particularly in tablet mode.
Here’s the rub for laptop-tablet hybrids: Even if the issues surrounding battery life, performance and overall weight are somehow addressed, those improvements will also improve tablets themselves. Say it does become possible to create a sub-2 pound notebook that folds into a tablet that gets great battery life.
That means a dedicated tablet would probably weigh less than a pound and runs for days between charges. So what’s the advantage of the single device again?
SEE ALSO: What Would It Take to Beat Apple?
Oh yeah, the all-in-one form factor. It’s nice, but it’s overrated, particularly since both laptops and tablets are trending toward lighter weights in any case.
Besides that — and this is the hurdle Microsoft is going have the hardest time leaping — consumers have now been trained to think of laptops as “work” devices and tablets as “lean back” (or “consumption”) devices.
As they say, customer habits are the hardest thing to break. Sure, the Yoga has a curious and fairly slick laptop design as laptops go. Those kinds of projects always garner lots of attention, but redefining the laptop is another matter entirely. I have a hard time seeing the Yoga becoming anything more than a good-looking device that a few enthusiasts will buy.
That’s why Cook’s right: bringing two products together that serve different needs lessens the experience of both. Apple made the iPad because it actually did things better than phones and laptops. It wasn’t combining categories, it created one.
As slick as the Yoga has shown a hybrid can be, at the end of the day I don’t go to my fridge for toast.
BONUS: Lenovo Yoga in Pictures
The Lenovo IdeaPad YOGA is marketed as a 4-in-1 device. Really, it's a 2-in-1, but users might find it useful nonetheless.
Click here to view this gallery.
Image by Tommaso Gecchelin
More About: apple, IdeaPad Yoga, ipad, lenovo, tablets, tim cook
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