Can the enterprise popularize tablet-laptop hybrids?

Summary:Intel envisions a touch-enabled ultrabook that combines laptop and tablet features. Is there a market?

Christopher Dawson

Christopher Dawson

Yes

or

No

James Kendrick

James Kendrick

Best Argument: Yes

The moderator has delivered a final verdict.

Opening Statements

Hybrids have a strong future

Chris Dawson: How many of us carry both a laptop and a tablet? Both are incredibly useful, but, especially for enterprise customers, tend to have quite different use cases. Tablets accompany us to meetings, lunches, conferences, and flights. They keep essential documents at our sides, let us store handwritten notes and capture video, and even function as interactive whiteboards.


Laptops, however, are indispensable for creating detailed powerpoints, writing white papers, composing lengthy memos, building websites, and writing code. No matter how powerful tablets become, enterprise users won’t be leaving full-blown PCs behind.

Enter the hybrid tablet, a growing segment of the PC market that gives users a detachable Android tablet when they want it and a complete ultraportable Windows PC when they need it. Largely ignored by consumers, it will be the enterprise that ensures hybrids have a strong future and continue to advance portable form factors for highly mobile users.
 

History will repeat

James Kendrick: The hybrid tablet, or convertible notebook, is nothing new. Those Tablet PCs with a rotating screen that exposed a touch tablet failed in the enterprise, and failed miserably. No doubt the Wintel bunch would like to believe that the new tablet-friendly Windows 8 will change history, but it wasn't just the OS behind the original failure.

The iPad is beginning to appear in the enterprise, in large part due to the thin, light form. Permanently attach a bulky keyboard to the tablet and you lose the draw of the light tablet. I have used many different tablets, and anything with a keyboard attached is simply too heavy and uncomfortable to use for any length of time.

Pure Windows 8-bearing slate forms no bigger/ heavier than the iPad have an outside shot in the enterprise. Add any weight to that like a keyboard and history is destined to repeat itself.

The Rebuttal

  • Great Debate Moderator

    ...and that's a wrap!

    ...and Mr. Dawson slips his answer in after the bell. No penalty, sir -- we'll let this one slide given our technical difficulties earlier in the debate. :) To everyone watching: thanks for joining us for our latest live and on-the-air Great Debate. Agree? Disagree? Tell us -- and make sure to come back for closing arguments!

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Leave it to Dawson to bring up Google glasses.

    OK gentlemen, time for only one more question. So: is the entire premise of this debate wrong? Can enterprises truly popularize something in the age of consumerization? Where are tastes made, exactly?

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    Hybrids are an answer to consumerization

    There are countless businesses and organizations that can't or won't support BYOD or give everyone an iPad in addition to their primary computer. iPads and other tablets aren't ready yet to meet the needs of most enterprise workers. Therefore, until they are, businesses will attempt to meet workers halfway with devices that have some of the great features of those consumer tablets/phones but still let them get their work done in very flexible ways. Enterprises can drive sales, if not popularity, and we'll see plenty of hybrid sales. They probably won't sell to consumers in droves because they're already buying that consumer hardware that enterprises will try to emulate (via hybrids) without the inherent issues of introducing consumer IT into the enterprise. From an OEM perspective, popularity doesn't matter as much as sales - that's what counts and that is where the enterprise will bring the hybrid form factor to life.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Yes

    In the enterprise cost is king

    I do think that the BYOD movement will push the enterprise into more 'mobile' solutions. How far will companies cave? That will come down to the usual factors: cost and support. If it turns out to be expensive to deploy/support, corporate IT will shut this down real quick. Laptops are getting very cheap to deploy in bulk, and that will be the barrier for tablets/hybrids in the workplace. People may want tablets or Google glasses in the workplace, but it will only happen if it's cheaper than other methods. And the laptop still wins in that regard.

    James Kendrick

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Hmm, both of you used my premise to make your argument.

    Fascinating! On to the next one, then: what will enterprise laptops, tablets and hybrids look like in five years' time?

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    Thin...really thin

    Think wearable, like glasses with heads up displays attached to keyboards, foldable keyboards that attach to the screen (touch or otherwise) of our choice, and far more in the way of virtual keyboards (e.g., dual touch screens in a clamshell form). It will be like comparing hybrids now to the convertible laptops of 2 years ago - tough, very tough. I don't actually think we'll see much in the way of hybrids then. As I mentioned, hybrids are something of a stopgap that will see a couple lifecycles and then be replaced as workers grow accustomed to alternate forms of input. Who needs a keyboard when subvocal voice recognition captures all of your content and displays it on Google Glasses?

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Yes

    Ultrabooks, tablets and docks, oh my!

    Good question. I suspect it will look a lot like it will the end of this year. Thin, light Ultrabooks will still be the laptop in five years. Tablets will still be much like Android tablets and the iPad of today. Maybe some Windows 8 variety thrown in. What we probably will see are clever docking environments that let employees plug the tablet into a desktop replacement situation in the office. Kind of a modular system with the tablet as CPU. That will be more prevalent than hybrid tablets.

    James Kendrick

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Now let's focus on the enterprise.

    What about the effect of enterprise IT lock-in? How will the BYOD and mobility trends change the device landscape for enterprise employees? (Will more hybrids show up in the workplace because people find them useful -- or not?)

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    Hybrids will show up where BYOD doesn't

    If people are bringing their own devices, they'll bring iPads to supplement a work desktop or laptop (or will bring their own bevy of devices). When an enterprise, though, doesn't allow BYOD (and many won't), then hybrids will let them satisfy demand for tablets and highly portable laptops in a standardized and relatively cost-effective way.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Yes

    Tablets yes, hybrids no

    The BYOD trend is growing and will continue to do so as companies realize they lose nothing by letting it happen. Tablets are already appearing in such environments and will continue to do so. This is actually a good argument for hybrids not being the favored device. They are more costly as already described, and employees aren't going to pay the premium to have that keyboard. They are either going to go straight slate, or cheap notebook if they are buying their own equipment.

    James Kendrick

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Let's get down to where boots hit the ground.

    Not all enterprises are created equal. Where do hybrids make the most sense? Where don't they?

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    Both extremes

    Large enterprises where deploying standardized hardware to users with a variety of job functions and disparate needs is one area. On the other hand, the smallest of enterprises need to satisfy user demands for mobile and tablet technologies but can't afford to deploy and support multiple devices. For many, the idea bag holds a high-powered laptop and a tablet or their tablet supplements a powerful desktop. That gets pricey, though, making a hybrid device a valuable proposition that satisfies both use cases.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Yes

    Mobile but wordy places

    A hybrid would work in any environment that needs a tablet some of the time and a notebook the rest. Field workers fall under the former criteria, but most don't need a keyboard of a hybrid. The slate form is the best fit for them. Workers who work mobile some of the time but do a lot of text entry could benefit from a hybrid. Workers who work in a fixed location/cubicle don't need one at all. The old desktop format computer is more than good enough.

    James Kendrick

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    OK, a followup question to clarify those responses.

    Will the keyboard-mouse combination last forever? Particularly for those wordier workers that Mr. Kendrick cites?

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    No, but it will last for a while

    A quick look at anyone under the age of 15 shows a total lack of reliance on a physical keyboard and mouse. Touch typing on a tablet is a no-brainer for this second generation of digital natives. In fact, typing with the word prediction features in Android and iOS can be very fast and most operating systems and applications are optimizing for touch. However, in the enterprise, this will be a long, slow transition. Hybrids have at least 5 years where they can be an important bridge to 100% touch/voice input, along with various other types of input being designed as we speak.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Yes

    Depends, show me the apps

    Nothing lasts forever, but apps will determine when the keyboard-mouse is no longer the best control method. As apps are written to be controlled solely by touch on a screen, that method will become the preferred interface. That's going to take a good while, especially in the enterprise where cheap desktop computers are gong to be around for years. The keyboard is also going to long be the choice for those who enter a lot of text. Like us debaters.

    James Kendrick

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Fair enough

    Although let's type faster, gents, time's a wastin'! Next question: The inherent value of technology is that it solves problems. What business problems do hybrids solve? Are they an improvement to existing solutions, or a new solution for a new problem?

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    The business problem

    Is mobility...mobility in the office, mobility on the road, mobility back and forth to home. We're expected to work anytime, anywhere. I, for one, am happy to do that for the price of seeing kids' soccer games and not being in the office all the time. That said, we need a device that accommodates mobile work and serious, sit-down work. The serious sit down work often requires Windows and a keyboard; true hybrids meet this need. The highly mobile, toss-a-tablet-in-your-bag work happens best with a tablet (regardless of OS). Give me one device to rule them all and I'm happy.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Yes

    Nothing cheaper solutions don't solve

    They don't solve any problem, and therein lies the rub. If business needs a tablet, those are available, and likely cheaper. If they need a laptop, those are also available and cheaper. The hybrid doesn't solve any problem that enterprise is currently facing. Employees fall in two camps: those who enter a lot of text and those who don't. The former need a laptop and the latter can easily be served by just a tablet. Both of those solutions are cheaper than the hybrid. Companies that deployed convertible notebooks of old discovered an unexpected situation. Human behavior dictated that if the device had a keyboard, most employees would only use that. That turned the expensive hybrid into an expensive laptop most of the time. No point in the investment if the tablet wasn't used much.

    James Kendrick

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Alright then!

    So tell me this: does Windows 8 change the game? Why or why not?

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    Meh

    Sort of - Windows 8 is far more touch-centric, making devices that can leverage this that much more attractive. However, we know that Windows 8 adoption will be slow and many hybrids have Android as their tablet OS, making Win 8 somewhat irrelevant (at least for now). The game changer, actually, was the iPad, via which people became used to using a tablet for much of their mobile work. Look how many iPad keyboards are on the market now and think about what a hybrid can do with that mentality.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Yes

    Better than before, not good enough

    Windows 8 is important for the enterprise, and tablets running it have a good shot at penetrating that market. It will depend on how well Microsoft takes advantage of the tablet user experience with Metro, but it's looking good so far. What's not clear is how well that user experience transfers from desktop to tablet. That's important as the user will likely interact with Windows 8 differently on a tablet and on a desktop/notebook. That also means the hybrid being used in notebook mode. Critics have complained that the early version of Windows 8 has a jarring transition from tablet use to desktop use. That would be a big downer on a hybrid device that would cause users to stick in one mode all of the time, negating any benefit of a hybrid.

    James Kendrick

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Hmm, it looks like you two agree...sort-of.

    Interesting. Now let's look at the history; prove it. What are some hybrid technologies that have succeeded or failed in years past? (And, more crucially, why?)

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    History isn't relevant here

    Tablets 2 years ago barely existed (or were clunky, expensive convertible notebooks with pen input). Laptops have thinned to the point of knife edges. Now, users expect to hold a tablet in their hands and work on ultrabooks. Modern hybrids are barely comparable to the tablets of old. That said, the Intel Classmate convertible netbook has seen great adoption in the educational enterprise because it meets both tablet needs and those for content creation with a cheap laptop.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Yes

    Good question but no other hybrids

    No hybrid technologies have been used much historically, unless you count the notebook as a desktop replacement. Many companies have done that, and largely successfully.

    James Kendrick

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Once again, we apologize for the delay.

    We appreciate your patience.

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Now now, let's save the argument for when James gets here.

    Though from the looks of things, the votes may have scared him off. (I kid.)

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    He's probably...

    ...messing around with his desktop, laptop, and iPad, trying to get them all synced up...I bet if he had a hybrid in a docking station, this would be much easier :)

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Yes

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Now let's get going!

    Let's start with a bit of theory, shall we. Is "hybrid" an approach that's fundamentally flawed from the start, or must the conditions merely be right? (Is it a matter of marketing?)

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    It's always marketing, but...

    There are plenty of settings where the idea of a hybrid makes a lot of sense. Hybrids give expanded functionality and meet the needs of a heterogeneous group of users, allowing enterprises to roll out standardized hardware that appeals to a variety of users. There are settings where hybrids are an unacceptable compromise, but for most enterprise users, the compromise is actually the appeal. Devices that work for the road warrior, the meeting mogul, *and* the power user, for less than the cost of 2 devices sounds like a win in the enterprise.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Yes

    Let's go

    The way Intel has demoed the hybrid to date, it is basically a tablet with an attached keyboard. The keyboard either slides or swivels out of the way to convert the device to a tablet mode. This is similar to the convertible notebooks of old, with the exception the tablets will be lighter and thinner. I used such a notebook for years, and I can state from experience that having a keyboard permanently attached to the tablet dooms it to failure for two reasons. One is cost, which is a factor for the early failure of the convertible notebooks. The other is comfort of use, or the lack thereof. Even with today's thin, light tablets like the iPad, if you stick a keyboard on it the comfort flies out the window. Today's tablets are on the very edge of ease of use for extended periods, and the additional weight of a keyboard pushes it over the limit. No amount of marketing can make it comfortable.

    James Kendrick

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    While we wait...

    I found it interesting that the voting was so lopsided. I thought this debate would be more evenly spread among ZDNet readers.

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    ZDNet is pretty heavily weighted...

    ...towards the enterprise...and it's not too many IT departments who will authorize both a desktop/laptop *and* a tablet - for many, if you want work to buy a tablet, it will have to be dual purpose.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Yes

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Let's give James a few more minutes.

    I believe he's having some connection issues.

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

  • Great Debate Moderator

    ...and a good afternoon to everyone!

    Let's start with a brief mic check, gentlemen. Are we both ready to roll?

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    Born ready

    Bring it on, James.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Yes

    late but here

    Ready to go

    James Kendrick

    I am for No

Closing Statements

Hybrids represent a real solution

Christopher Dawson

Clearly, tablets are the consumer devices to beat. Whether we need them or not, we want them, especially as we sacrifice defined times and places for work in favor of work-life balance. Even in the office, it's easier take notes in a meeting or share ideas with colleagues from the crook of our arms on a tablet.

However, those tablets come at a price, monetary and otherwise. Management software is in its infancy, most carry $500+ stickers, and the BYOD model that might let many businesses allow workers to adopt tablets of their own volition simply isn't acceptable to many enterprises.

Hybrids, however, represent a real solution. Letting both enterprises and workers have their cake and eat it too, hybrids enable standardized deployments, lower costs than deploying both tablets and desktops to employees, and access for workers to the tablets they want and the enterprise-grade PCs required for countless use cases in a single device.
 

Hybrid doesn't offer anything new

James Kendrick

The hybrid, or tablet with a permanently attached keyboard, is Intel's futile attempt  to offset the wild popularity of the iPad. They look good on paper but do not really fill any role in the enterprise that cheaper alternatives don't fill.

I do think tablets will appear more frequently in the enterprise, largely through BYOD programs. Many workers will discover they don't really need a whole computer with a keyboard; the tablet will work just fine.

Hybrids won't fly in the enterprise for the same reason convertible notebooks didn't in years past. They are too expensive to build, costly to support, and weigh too darn much to be comfortable to use. The deck is stacked against the hybrid.
 

Yes for some

Andrew Nusca

Both debaters made sound points, but I think the devil here is in the details: for some enterprises, particularly small ones with limited budgets, the hybrid device may be sufficient. For others, particularly those with deep pockets or higher performance requirements, hybrids won't cut it. The original question asks whether the enterprise can popularize the hybrid; given that, I think Mr. Dawson made a sound argument that the answer ought to be yes for some -- even though as a power user, I'll probably never use a hybrid in my lifetime. He wins!

Topics: Great Debate

About

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. He is also the former editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation. He writes about business, technology and design now but used to cover finance, fashion and culture. He was an intern at Money, Men's Vogue, Popular Mechanics and the New York Daily Ne... Full Bio

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