The venerable laptop has proven a master of integration. Notebook PCs reigned components of the desktop PC components -- including keyboards, mice, monitors, speakers, microphones, webcams, and expansion cards -- into convenient book-like packages. While never reaching ergonomic perfection, they have nonetheless evolved over the years to pack more power into ever slimmer packages.
The first iPad initially continued the trend, doing away with the keyboard and trackpad, in effect, the lower half of the iconic clamshell. But then, slowly at first, came the accessories. Apple had actually produced a not very portable keyboard dock for the first iPad, but Microsoft offered the keyboard cover as the must-have accessory with the first Surface. And because the Surface fully supported Windows, a Bluetooth or even wired mouse wasn't out of the picture. Oh, and let's not forget the Surface Pen.
Soon, with the exception of mice (unsupported on iOS), Apple matched Microsoft with its own keyboard case and Apple Pencil for the iPad. And now, with the ChromeOS-based Pixel Slate, Google has joined the tablet add-on pile-on with its own keyboard cover and pen. And as the Pixel Slate and the newest iPad Pro support USB-C, they join the Surface in supporting a slew of USB-C accessories such as the USB-C-driven Vinpok Split external monitor.
At minimum, all of these topped-off tablets can now handle the core functionality of and ape most of the ergonomics of the laptop. But with all these snap-on parts, have we created magnetic monsters? Certainly on a pure business level, accessories have always been welcomed by electronics brands and retailers that tend to make more profit per item on these products than the base device. That said, at Apple's introduction of the iPad Pro, the company offered its own take on the spread of gadgets surrounding the naked tablet. The company positioned them as a modular system, one that gets progressively more functional as opposed to taking on different optimizations as the Moto Z phone with its Moto Mods does.
In a way, that makes sense. Experientially little more than a software-defined touchscreen, the slate represents the purest implementation we've had of a mobile computing core. One can also see why Apple in particular would espouse such a view. While Microsoft's and Google's latest flagship slates grew up in a keyboard-centric world, the iPad is most optimized for its unadorned state. Indeed, while the keyboard folio got the attention at the introduction of the iPad Pro, Apple still offers keyboard-free Smart Folios for those who would rather use the original mode of relying on the screen for keyboard input, even for its largest iPad.
In contrast, while Microsoft and Google will both sell you an unadorned tablet, the Surface's Keyboard Cover and the Pixel Slate's keyboard folio are far more of an integral part of their experience (in part because both also offer trackpads). Other 2-in-1/detachable Windows PC vendors, such as Samsung with its Galaxy Book, have abandoned the distinction and just put the keyboard folio in the box.
The tablet isn't the only example of a device doing double duty as something with inherent customer functionality and as a core of a richer experience. Last year, I wrote about various efforts to create a desktop experience from smartphones. Of those, only Samsung's DeX remains a market force today, although Huawei also has a docked desktop option for its smartphones. And in what may be a record shipping delay even for crowdfunded devices, the developers of the Neptune Suite -- a matryoshka doll-like device system that builds up to a laptop but uses the brains of a smartwatch -- promise to deliver their product in the second quarter of 2019 after having been crowdfunded in May of 2015.
But these combinations aren't quite as compelling today, because there is a large size gap between the ultraportable core and the merely mobile accessory system. The Neptune Suite, for example, had to include a way for the accessories to provide power back to the watch so that the could keep providing a user interface to the larger display. In contrast, the 2 (or more)-in-1 scenario banks on the idea that the tablet, while thinner, is close enough to the size of a laptop that there's not much incremental burden in making it act as one.
Apple may have an experience advantage when its tablet is used without any accessories, but its capitulation on a keyboard accessory essentially shows that the iPad is heading back into being part of a larger laptop identity. Indeed, at the introduction of the iPad Pro, the company showed off sales figures that compared iPad sales favorably to all Windows laptops. That's good news for the future of 2-in-1s, but an unexpected turn for those who saw the minimalist tablet as a computing evolution to take us past the clamshell.