Laptop PC sales are falling, Tablet sales are dropping, and even the mighty smartphone might be plateau-ing. Wearables have been a bit of a damp squib, and VR is just starting out. In the midst of all this, one area does seem to be (anecdotally at least) doing well….the convertible laptop.
A “unified experience” is thing that many manufacturers are aiming for. Some have gone for, what I term, the “One Device” model. That is something like “Continuum” by Microsoft or “Convergence“, by Canonical (makers of Ubuntu, a version of Linux) as well as ventures like NexDock and Superbock. In this model, the main computer is the smartphone. All the computing power is can be done on the device, and the device can then be plugged in to a dock or a dumb screen. It will then project a desktop like app experience to the monitor using the apps on your phone. Or it works by, for example, on a Surface Pro 4, Windows 10 will default to desktop mode with the keyboard attached and will then switch to tablet mode when you remove it.
This is a major undertaking, it requires significant horsepower to run the phone side of it, but also a wholesale overhaul of the OS. Remember Windows 7 supported touch input (HP Slate anyone?), but the desktop was supremely unsuited to it. Microsoft have done a massive amount of work on Windows 10, Universal Apps, Windows 10 Mobile and jettisoning previous Windows Phone versions. Microsoft have the funds to do it, and frankly it’s a very difficult undertaking. Canonical know this all too well.
Back in 2013, Ubuntu Phone was announced as was convergence in very similar terms to what Microsoft are doing now with Continuum. Frankly their venture has utterly failed. The Ubuntu Phone itself is barely usable, and the unified desktop interface has been a work-in-progress since 2014 (latest versions of Ubuntu still don’t ship the unified desktop).
What it has done though is spawned a new device category, one which, arguably, Microsoft themselves created with the Surface. It is the convertible laptop. Sure, there had been moves to integrate touch into laptops (Intel had said in 2013 that all ultrabooks would have to be touch-enabled to be classed as ultrabooks), but it was the release of the Surface line that really set it off. We see many different types, budget devices (HP Pavillions) all the way up to super-high premium (e.g. Dell XPS). Windows 8 standalone tablets started getting bundled with keyboard docks (e.g. Linx 10). Microsoft even riffed off their own Surface line with the Surface Book.
The other end of this experience is what I call the “Integration” model. This is something that can be seen with Apple. The way this model works is basically keeping the OS of devices distinct but merging the content produced by your apps. So, for example, you take your photo with your iPhone, view it on your iPad and then edit it on your Macbook. Or you start writing a document on your Macbook, find a relevant article on your iPhone, cut the relevant text, and are able to to paste back in your document open on your Macbook. All your files and apps can be accessed anywhere, and the different operating systems talk to each other. The OS’s work closely together, but are still fundamentally different.
Now you could argue that Apple doesn’t have a convertible laptop in the same way as Windows laptops, but I beg to differ. It can be argued that the iPad Pro 12.2 + keyboard + Pencil is nothing but a laptop with a detachable tablet mode – a la Surface. Think about it, how many iPads in the wild have you seen with Bluetooth keyboards? The functionality is limited compared to a Macbook, but it is increasing day-by-day.
Other companies have taken approaches in between these two. Google has recently launched Android Apps on ChromeOS via the Play Store. This then brings (potentially) 1 billion native Android apps to the web-based OS. The two OS’s share a Linux base, and so its easier to do without re-writing both OS’s. Whilst most Chromebooks up until now have been non-touch, the most recent (e.g. ASUS Chromebook Flip) are touch-enabled. This is presumably to take advantage of this new Android development. However, it’s still in beta and its yet to be seen how well the implementation will work out.
It seems the Linux world saw this coming, I mentioned Canonical and Ubuntu back in 2013 talking convergence. But other Linux players, notably the GNOME foundation, have also been involved (more on that in Part 2).
Usability has been a bit hit-and-miss. Windows 8 was a good interface on the touch screen, but almost unusable on non-touch devices or in Desktop mode. Windows 10 is much better, but the lack of apps and the high requirements of the OS dont give a good experience. On the other end, despite Apples best efforts, iOS just isnt as good as a laptop OS. Android is great on touch tablets, but adding a keyboard gives you nothing extra in functionality and with the new ChromeOS its too early to tell
In the meantime, quietly, and kind-of-by-accident, the best convertible OS so far (in my opinion) has come out.
Stick around for Part 2 for my big reveal!