Can a new wave of two-in-one devices save the PC industry?

Can a new wave of two-in-one devices save the PC industry?

Summary: At the IFA tradeshow in Berlin, Microsoft's hardware partners are showing off the next generation of Windows-powered hardware, a category Intel calls "two-in-ones." By year's end, the market should be flooded with devices that can shift from PC to tablet on the fly. But who's buying?


If you want to understand why Microsoft is struggling with the transition to mobile computing, all you have to do is walk around the show floor at the massive IFA tradeshow in Berlin.

Many of Microsoft’s most loyal OEM partners are showing new consumer devices here, in preparation for the upcoming holiday season.

Lenovo unveiled four new PCs, a smartphone, and a tablet this week at IFA. Those PCs are all convertible devices, powered by Windows 8.1, that can shift from a conventional configuration to a touch-friendly, keyboard-free layout with a quick flip. The Lenovo Vibe X smartphone, on the other hand, runs Android, as does the company’s new S5000 7-inch tablet.

Over at Toshiba’s stand, it was a similar story, with new portable PCs powered by Windows 8.1 whose displays detach from the keyboard to turn into tablets. A few feet away was an entire table filled with dedicated tablets, all powered by Android.

At a press conference yesterday, Intel showed off a dozen new PCs that included the Lenovo and Toshiba designs as well as similar convertible/detachable/flippable models from Sony and Dell and others. Most of them were powered by the new 4th generation Core (Haswell) chips and ran Windows 8.1. But when the company showed off two new small tablets powered by its upcoming Atom CPU (Bay Trail), one of them was running Android.

Sense a pattern here?

Microsoft’s hardware partners are acutely tuned to feedback from customers, most of whom have made it clear that they’re not yet convinced Windows 8 is suitable for use on a full-time tablet. It’s fine with PCs that can double as tablets in a pinch, but for now at least, Android has captured hearts, minds, and market share among touchscreen devices that don’t have a keyboard.

That’s a very big problem for Microsoft, which finds itself dominating the shrinking PC market and struggling in the fast-growing tablet segment. The recipe for long-term success has to include strong sales in the tablet category, which simply aren’t there for Windows-powered devices.

Indeed, both Microsoft and Intel have pinned their hopes for success on a risky strategy that emphasizes those hybrid designs. Intel calls them “two in one” devices, and uses the tagline "A tablet when you want it and a laptop when you need it.”

By the end of the year, Intel says, the number of devices in this “it’s a PC and a tablet” category will be 10 times what it was at the beginning of the year. And Intel’s market research (take it with a grain of salt) says that buyers who see these convertible devices are five times more likely to want to buy them than a conventional clamshell laptop.

Before you start calculating optimistic sales projections from those assumptions, though, consider the two hurdles that PC makers have to overcome before they book those sales. First, they have to get consumers (and small businesses) to actually try those two-in-one designs out and see their benefits firsthand. And second, they have to deliver those products at competitive prices. In theory, a device that is a PC and a tablet should sell at a premium price. In practice, there’s every reason to believe buyers who’ve grown accustomed to dirt-cheap PCs will be put off by those higher price tags.

That upcoming tidal wave of PC/tablets should be a vast improvement over last year’s models. Windows 8.1 addresses many of the complaints about Windows 8, the Haswell chips dramatically increase battery life, and high-profile apps are in the pipeline. In Steve Ballmer’s pre-retirement dreams, all those factors combine to restore Windows to its former glory.

The category where Windows tablets are most likely to succeed is in the emerging small-form-factor segment. Toshiba, whose current tablet lineup is dominated by Android models, introduced the 8-inch Encore yesterday at IFA. The device, powered by Windows 8.1, offers noticeably better screen quality than the Acer Iconia W3-810, which was first to market in the category, and the Bay Trail processor should translate to all-day battery life.

Still, in a world dominated by Android tablets at every price point and the still-strong iPad line, it’s an uphill battle for Windows tablets and two-in-ones to get mind share or market share. If this fall’s wave of new devices washes out, 2014 will be a long, dreary year for Microsoft, Intel, and their partners.

Topics: PCs, Android, Dell, Intel, Lenovo, Microsoft, Toshiba

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Slow sales

    Are slow sales. The computing market is getting more and more saturated. The difference between tablet and computer growth is that tablets are still catching up hardware wise and thus NEED upgrades. I'm not sure why this surprises people. It could have Windows 7.1 on the systems and sales would still be the same.
    • Mechanical Design

      Sales are not slow, it is just a new mechanical design.

      Until recently all portable computers (laptops and notebook) were of the clam shell design with a thin display and heavy keyboard base. With touch there are now new possibilities. We now have some new mechanical designs for portable computers. I wonder which will win.
      1. Clam shell with a hinge that can go almost 360 degrees. (Lenovo Yoga)
      2. Flip up that can fold like a clam shell or fold with the monitor on top without a twist. (Sony Duo)
      3. Clam shell with a twist that open like a clam shell then twist the monitor to fold with the monitor on top. (Lenovo ThinkPad Twist)
      4. Clam shell with a spin that open like a clam shell the spin the monitor in frame to fold with the monitor on top. (Dell)
      5. Tablets with a detachable keyboard. (Microsoft Surface Pro)

      Have I missed any? Which will win?
      • The PC Industry

        The Pc Industry is not dying. It is shrinking because of the mobile devises. Many People use to buy pcs to browse the web, check their emails, play a card game. A PC has too much computing power for that and a mobile device can do that for a third of the price. Today's pc buyers simply need a full featured computing device and the others are buying tablets.

        Everybody use to buy large cars. When the small cars where introduced, many realised that a small car can take them from A to B as well as a large car and for less money, less gas, less hassle. Their are still big cars and trucks out there but the people who buys them, needs them.

        The PC industry, as well as the observers needs to face the fact that the recent sales figures are here to stay. It is the new reality. The PC industry is not dying. We are simply buying them for the right reason.
        • It's not shrinking

          It's saturated and has no room to grow. Everyone who wants one has one, and this hardware generation is only about 10% better than last generation, so not worth upgrading. When tablets stop getting hardware upgrades that increase performance by 50% per generation and get down to more like 10% like PC's, the tablet market will stagnate just like the PC market.
          Jacob VanWagoner
          • Tablets are an upgrade

            Tablets are an upgrade to the PC market. They are just a different mechanical design with an upgraded interface (touch). Only marketing gurus tries to make them different. I wonder what the next upgrade will be called?
          • Not so much

            Tablets, in the mold of the iPad and the Nexus, are certainly application processing personal computers. They are, however, not all that similar to traditional PCs. And one of Microsoft's big problems is that, even when they're building and enabling tablet PCs, they're still making PCs. And so far, what you get is a bad tablet and a bad PC.

            What tablets do well is untether. They don't need keyboards, they run all day on a charge, they weigh about a pound, and they run the same software as your smartphone... including things great for mobile life. Yeah, they work with touchscreens. In PC terms, touch is a horrible interface: it's slow, inaccurate, it wastes screen real estate and leaves grease all over your viewing surface. It's good food mobile only because everything else is worse on a handheld... 'dept voice, but only in special circumstances. Touch on the desktop is just as stupid as it was when it failed in the 80s. Nothing superior about it.. so naturally Microsoft studied tablets, and touch is about all they got out of it.

            That's a repeating problem with Microsoft ... lacking their own ideas, they use other folks ideas. But they never quite make them their own. Microsoft's clumsiness at many technologies, even where successful commercially, still screams "the NIH is strong in this one."
        • Computer vs Computing?

          So, perhaps the right perspective is this: The personal computer market may be shrinking, simply because it is saturated and no new major innovations. I don't think we can say the personal COMPUTING market is shrinking - users are just using different devices to achieve various computing functions. When I want to edit a photo or create a video, I jump to my desktop computer. But if I just want to surf the web, scan a few emails for priorities, or watch a video, I power on my tablet or my phone. Soon, I might add a smart watch to the mix if it can prove it has value to my work style.

          I am not doing less computing, I am just doing less of it on a traditional computer.
          • Single device

            And yet I can do all of the above with a single device in a Microsoft Surface. By using a docking station my tablet is a full fledged desktop and still an amazing tablet. The two in one concept will ultimately win in the end.
          • You're wrong...

  's actually a 3-in-1, desktop/laptop/tablet. :-)
          • I like my Surface Pro

            Yes, I use my Surface Pro with a 28" Monitor when at my desk. I use it as a laptop with BYOD meetings. I use it as a tablet while on my couch in my livingroom. Now people are catching on...........
          • The Surface Pro

            Currently use a MacBook pro (MBP) that is early 2008 and absolutely love it. But it is long in the tooth now and I am going to do a "tech refresh" soon. I am awaiting what Apple will introduce next week on Sept 10th t see if I am still going to stay or move to the Surface Pro. I really like the 3 in 1 design of the Surface Pro and the price is right vs a new MBP. Honestly will take quite a bit for me to get over the "it just works" motto I have been saying about the MBP. Windows has always been a disaster for me personally-- constant reformatting of hard drive and reinstallation of Windows etc.. but I used much older versions of Windows (pre-2008). I am reluctant but may take the plunge to a Surface if Apple doesn't innovate the design. I don't want to have to buy TWO devices (a MBP and an IPad) when I can get a device that does both for much cheaper.
          • you think it can do it all....

            Load up Adobe Photoshop CS6 with all the bells and whistles... tell me it functions just like your desktop or a Real/Good laptop with 12 or more gigs of memory.
            Mr. Tinker
          • 27"

            Does it have a 27" monitor? For the life of me, I can not understand why people want SMALL screens now. I started with Windows computers in 1994. The monitor was a 14" and I wished I could have afforded the 15" at the time. Why on earth do people want tiny screens. My cell phone is a 4.7" but I hold it close and use it a few minutes at a time. My eyes would go if I used a tiny screen for an hour or two.

            I have my laptop connected to a 23" monitor, keyboard and mouse. Takes awhile to pull everything off, but then again it is mostly used in the house. Maybe a tablet dock system which connects a keyboard, mouse and monitor in one quick connect would be something usable.
          • No, you really can't

            The things I do on my desktop PC, I do at a level you cannot do on a Surface Pro. Sure, you can edit video on your PC tablet... you could edit video on an iPad for that matter. But the apps I use take about 250GB on my 960GB SSD... and that's before we get to the storage for video, about 100GB per hour these days (AVC Intra DSLR video). And I've done 60 layer animations in raw HD that can use up the better part of an TB HDD. And I use a TV and three monitors for video work, two at 2650x1440 and 27". This is not work for a toy PC.

            You can edit photos on an Android tablet or a Surface Pro, sure. But again, only at a very basiuc level. I'm shooting in raw 20Mpixel, full frame DSLR, and sometimes compositing 50-70 individual photos in various ways. I have run short, once, on my 64GB system. I don't think a Surface RT is anything but a toy for photography, either... Maybe for those who call their phones "my camera". When was the last time you even calibrated that Surface Pro?
          • One question

            How much of the general public use a PC like you do?
          • Single device

            The problem with the 2 in one devices is the size.
            For me a tablet must fit in the breast pocket.
            If I carry it in a brief case, than a small laptop is more suitable. Therefore a 2 in one for most people does not make sense.
            Julia Lengyel
          • Not for me

            I have doubts that I'd go the Microsoft Surface route. I really love having a large monitor on my desktop so the small screen on the Surface just doesn't cut it. Program development, photo editing, video editing, etc are all better on a large monitor (or on 2 large monitors!). About the only time I could see myself having/using a Surface is when I go on vacation and since I already have a 14 inch laptop for that purpose so there's no need for the Surface.
          • marketing mistakes as well

            When Win 8 came out all the manufacturers thought they could sell upscale laptops for premium prices that highlight all the new Win 8 features. I went to Fry's right after the change and nearly flipped at how expensive laptops had become. Now prices have dropped again but the damage is done - folks have it in their craw that laptops are expensive and a tablet is just fine.

            I still don't understand why a laptop should have a touch screen.
          • Because touch is another interaction

            that works well on a laptop. Once you integrate touch into your workflow, being without it seems foreign and very 1990's. Other gestures will creep into computing as well, for instance, on my Surface Pro, some of the apps use the webcam to allow me to make "air-gestures" to flip pages, etc. without touching the screen. Voice commands are another interaction.

            In the past, computers required people to adapt to their preferred input requirements, now computers are adapting to ours.
        • Your simile exactly describes one point, though not in the manner expected.

          "Everybody used to buy large cars." Well, at lease here in America we did.

          "When the small cars were introduced, many realized that a small car can take them from A to B..." True again. One reason was they were much less expensive at the time and they tended to get about 50% better gas mileage. Anybody that drove for a living--such as insurance debit salesmen--loved the fact that smaller cars were more agile and they could drive all day--maybe two days--on a tank of gas.

          "... as well as a large car..." Nope. They had their advantages, but for the reduced cost you sacrificed comfort.

          "There are still big cars and truck out there, but the people who buy them, need them." Sorry, but this one is simply false. First off, the big cars are dead with the death of Ford's "Panther" platform--the Crown Victoria and other models based on it. On the other hand, trucks have grown bigger than ever and the most popular models have four doors. These trucks aren't used as trucks in most cases, they're used as huge luxury cars by the same people who used to drive full-sized cars back when they were big.

          This is where your simile fails. Sure, we do have a lot of people moving over to "sport models" for their portability needs--after all, laptops are nothing but portable PCs, they were never designed as true mobility devices. But as we've already seen, people will push the limits and laptops were often used in places they really weren't meant to go. The tablet now serves the purpose of sports car, Jeep or other limited-purpose vehicle simply because it can go where the full-sized car or pickup truck can't go. BUT...

          In the end, most people who once owned two or three PCs can now get away with one as long as they have a tablet on the side.