As we near the official launch of Windows 8, some OEMs have been publicly unveiling their lineup for the fall.
Among them is a form factor I have been interested in for a while called Hybrids.
At this point in time there is not a unifying label for these products. Some call them hybrids; some call them convertibles.
These Hybrids are devices that look like notebooks but have detachable screens for use in tablet only mode. Convertibles in our terminology are notebooks that convert into tablets but the screen does not detach.
Nearly every major PC OEM will bring one of these hybrids to market but at first it will constitute a very limited part of their notebook mix. Over time however, and if this form factor takes off, I expect much more focus to be given to hybrid designs.
What makes this form factor interesting is that it may represent the appropriate blend of a tablet and a notebook. Ultrabooks which support touch are more notebooks than they are tablets. Even convertibles are still primarily notebooks.
The hybrid, however, can provide a full tablet experience, because the screen detaches, and a full notebook experience when docked with the keyboard.
Although not specifically designed this way by Apple, I have been using a similar set up with my iPad and the Logitech Ultra-thin keyboard cover. I find that this solution is quite sufficient for when I need to accomplish productivity tasks which require a keyboard for more long form writing.
Because Windows 8 is a blend of a tablet OS paired with a full desktop OS, it may be uniquely positioned for this hybrid category. Potential customers of this solution can reap the benefits of both a tablet and touch screen computer and a full desktop OS in one converged device.
However to compete with Apple in this scenario Microsoft and partners will need to get a few things correct.
Get the hardware design right
The first critical element for this to succeed is to get the hardware design right. Although Microsofts Surface may come close, I still have my concerns over its keyboard.
For this solution to be competitive it needs to come with a more than tolerable keyboard. It needs to come with a pleasant typing experience and one that feels much closer to a notebook.
The other hardware element that will need to be perfected is the hinge design. This is one area where I think the Surface did a good job. Using magnets rather than multi-pin hinge adapters is an interesting way to solve this problem.
Many of the first hybrids we will see on the market will be of the multi-pin hinge style. I have my concerns of the toughness or durability of this design but regardless, the hinge design is going to be one of the more important elements of the hybrid design.
Hybrid software is key
As important as the hardware design is to the overall experience of hybrids, software at large will be equally important.
Where other Windows 8 products may get away with more quality traditional mouse and keyboard software, hybrids will not. Because a hybrid will be purchased by consumers largely for its tablet capabilities, with notebook capabilities being a second tier value proposition, true touch based tablet software will be critical for its success.
Interestingly, I see this posing a potential challenge for software developers for two reasons. First because creating true touch based software requires writing software for the new modern UI mode.
Legacy Windows software developers may not want to write software for modern UI mode only, That’s because they may be leaving money on the tablet due to the small installed base to begin with. Software developers who target desktop mode software will have a larger potential installed base to sell to.
Second, there will be screen size fragmentation of Windows 8 touch based systems. Although, Surface is a a 10.1 inch screen, there will be hybrids that will have screens that are larger than 10.1 inches.
Speak with any tablet software developer and they will tell you that their applications are specifically built for a specific screen size. I believe that the many different touch based screen sizes Windows 8 will be shipped on will be a bit of a problem for developers looking to provide the ideal experience with their software.
Nonetheless, I am optimistic that over the next few years the hardware and the software community will jump on board the Windows 8 bandwagon and begin to create new and unique solutions for the market place. How long it may take for the marketplace to adopt them is a whole different discussion.