Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Microsoft Surface: Are Tablets Becoming More Like Laptops, Or Laptops More Like Tablets?

The following is a guest post from Greg Buckskin, Greg is an internet technology and pop culture writer. You can follow more of Greg's writings or touch base with him on Twitter at @gregbuckskin.

We've been seeing plenty of reports on how the upcoming Microsoft Surface tablet is "bringing keyboards back," not to mention countless puns about the Surface's "keys to success". Hype often overwhelms memory among tech journalists. You can already find several tablets with keyboards, as well as laptops with touchscreens, and anyone who visited tech trade shows such as MWC and Computex will agree that we'll soon see many more of these.

Microsoft Surface

Is this simply a case of tablets and notebooks thinking that the grass is greener on the other side of the portable computing market? Are manufacturers desperate to bolt on popular features in order to make an awkward grab for the undecided market minority? Or is this an inevitable convergence of two previously distinct categories?

First, let's take a look at how laptops have been moving toward tablets:

1. Touch Me: laptops plainly desire the intuitive and expressive control of touchscreens. Whether it's the "bend-over-backwards" convertible approach that Lenovo has taken, or the more standard form-factor products such as Dell's Latitude and Precision series, manufacturers are eager to explore a dual solution. This flexibility of control makes touchscreen notebooks and netbooks a perfect fit with the inherent split-personality of Windows 8/Metro.

2. Going Ultra: the hottest trend in notebooks has been the ultra-sleek, ultra-portable, and frequently ultra-expensive Ultrabooks. These designs drop optical drives completely, replace demanding hard drives with solid-state alternatives, and (usually) encase everything in lightweight, heat-efficient, and undeniably sexy aluminum. As usual, Apple set the initial standard with its MacBook Air, but the PC response has been stellar, with several exquisite models from Asus, Samsung, HP, and others.

3. Mobile-at-Heart: lightweight and efficient can also mean lower cost by replacing desktop-emulating laptop innards with components more commonly found in tablets and smartphones. This trend includes both the thin-client cloud-based route that Google has taken with most of its Chromebooks, as well as the ultra-efficient SoC (system on a chip) laptops based on ARM or Atom processors. Even Apple is rumored to be getting in on the ARM game, one of the few recent examples of Cupertino following instead of leading.

Okay, so laptops want to be cool again. But how are tablets getting more like laptops?

1. When Touch Isn't Enough: the flip side of the touchscreen notebook is the keyboarded tablet. Before the Surface, both the Motorola Atrix and Asus Transformer series were well-received among professionals and reviewers (although not so much by consumers). These designs combine a charging dock with the familiar and practical hardware keyboard, a slam-dunk for those of us who aren't satisfied with the virtual kind. Again, Windows 8 is inspiring many manufacturers to produce tablets that explore a mix of tapping types.

2. Annexing the OS: Microsoft has been trying for some time to get a tablet that runs a full-featured operating system. Last-generation's Windows 7 tablets were a solid choice, if somewhat pricey, and not always fully integrated. But with Windows 8, the entire OS is designed with touchscreen tablets in mind. Consumers will be able to choose between Windows 8 RT for tablets running ARM-based mobile architecture, and the full x86 Windows 8 on tablets equipped to handle more notebook-tier performance.

3. BYOD: in olden days, professionals had laptops, consumers had tablets, and never the twain shall meet. Between Apple's runaway popularity and the cost-cutting focus of most post-recession companies, the Bring Your Own Device trend has become mainstream. Tablets are increasingly taking on more serious tasks (and more serious security safeguards), proving that they can do the same work as any laptop, and often for less money. Professionals have been bringing their iPads to work (and everywhere else) for some time now, but Windows 8 has a number of security and encryption features built in from the start.

Given the two market extremes of tablets and notebooks, there are three possible futures: replacement, convergence, or occupying increasingly distinct niches.

  • Total replacement is unlikely on either end. As things stand right now, there are tasks that can only be done with either the performance-based hardware of notebooks or an intuitive and ultra-portable touchscreen tablet.
  • So we're already at the point where there's a distinct niche for each type of device. However, recent developments and innovations indicate that this situation won't last indefinitely. As tablet flexibility and performance increases, laptop manufacturers have attempted to take on more of the features that consumers and professionals obviously desire most from tablets.
  • The most likely future is an ideal hybrid of both genetic strains, a "best of both worlds" product that can handle serious work, serious play, and serious mobility. To combat Apple's dominance of the tablet market, Android manufacturers have been paving the way with innovative hybrid designs over the last 18 months or so.

However, the winning hand may lead with software rather than hardware. Microsoft's Windows 8 has won both praise and criticism for its Gemini approach to the traditional operating system, an attempt to please both desktop diehards and tablet usurpers. The Surface seems like the ideal way to launch a similar hardware-based attack on both the mobile computing market. Perhaps Redmond is just hedging their bets, but the timing seems to be right for tablet/notebook convergence.

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