Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: PC Upgrade Redux: Can Windows 10 Help?

Laptop makers question the keyboard in an all-glass world

Makers of larger mobile devices are experimenting beyond iPad-like tablets to achieve benefits that the smartphone gained by leaving the keyboard behind.

As smartphones transitioned to becoming all-touchscreen faces, these newer keyboard-free designs were still considered smartphones. But remove the keyboard from a Windows laptop and you strip its identity, leaving you with a whole other class of device: The tablet.

Indeed, the term "2-in-1" for a laptop with a detachable screen is a construct to accommodate iPad-inspired notions of what a laptop should be from a company that argued there really wasn't a standalone tablet category. Still, the term is particularly paradoxical. Microsoft did the most to popularize keyboards as integral parts of tablets, yet those products (like the Surface Pro), with nearly identical functionality, are not considered "2-in-1s" even when the keyboard covers are in the box.

Read also: BlackBerry Key2 hands-on: The good and bad so far (CNET)

In any case, the convention highlights the historically strong association of laptops with keyboards. At the launch of the BlackBerry Key2, TCL Mobile justified the continued importance of keyboards on phones were by praising their primacy on laptops. As I argued in my last column, it's not an apples-to-apples comparison. Despite that, some momentum in the great keyboard debate has begun to flow the other way -- from smartphone to laptop. After all, some of the same justifications for keyboard elimination apply -- more flexibility, larger display area, fewer moving parts, and a thinner profile. Already, the attack on the bezel has already convinced a few laptop makers to relocate their cameras although convertible momentum remains strong.

Still, there have been experiments. The first Surfaces, for example, said as much about the optional nature of a keyboard for a laptop as it did about the value it brings to a tablet. Microsoft even teased the possibility of a range of purpose-built covers such as a music mixing design. In 2016, Lenovo experimented with a flat, outlined keyboard area that doubled as a stylus drawing area on its Yoga Book clamshell devices for Android and Windows. To be sure, typing on those devices entailed a learning curve, and Lenovo plans for a Chromebook version never bore fruit. Still, when I wrote about the Yoga Books, I found them to be the first convertibles that could compete with slates as tablet form factors.

precog.jpg


Asus' "Project Precog" announcement at Computex -- a clamshell that replaces the input half with another display -- recalls an earlier effort by Acer with its first Iconia device in 2010. Indeed, even Apple's oft-maligned touch bar can be seen as clearing some runway for "bifold tablets." Once, the idea that Apple would remove the MacBook's keyboard was the stuff of Onion parodies. But the company, which has done more than any other to acclimate us to typing on glass, has filed a patent for a way to minimize reflection on the keyboard-area portion of a laptop that might lack one.

Read also: Computex 2018: Asus launches Zenbook Pro with display touchpad

The long-awaited linchpin component in all this has been foldable displays, a technology that seems perpetually around the corner and one that would pay even greater dividends for smartphones; Microsoft and Samsung have been frequently cited as pursuing such devices, surpassing the recent (and perhaps last) efforts of ZTE in such an endeavor. After all, despite the availability of secondary laptop displays (including one currently being crowdfunded), even modest laptop screens have enough screen real estate to handle their tasks. The size constraints of hands and pockets, though, keep providing a stronger push to to drive smartphone screen-to-bodies ratio to 1 or higher.


Previous and related coverage:

In a market without keyboards, BlackBerry presses on

Early smartphone users cursed the awkwardness of software keyboards. But for BlackBerry to come back, it will need to crack a market that has embraced typing on glass.

Asus Project Precog concept

Asus Project Precog is a concept of the future of laptops.

At CES 2018, tablets are out, convertibles are in

Minimalist tablets that relied exclusively on screen input were once the "it" gadget at CES. But while major Windows vendors are announcing more Surface-like detachables, the market is dominated by convertible clamshells.