We seem to learn lessons very slowly. This came to mind as I started using the new business-focused Dell Latitude E7240. Some believe that laptops are dead and 2-in-1 laptop/tablet hybrids are the future, but the reality is they aren’t selling that well. This is the second time we’ve tried as an industry to convince folks they want a laptop that can become a tablet and, for the most part, this is the second time the majority of folks in the market have said no.
I’ve been using a 2-in-1 device almost exclusively for over a year now and this E7240, which is a touchscreen laptop, is better by leaps and bounds. This is largely because it was designed to be a great laptop and didn’t try to bridge between two increasingly different use cases.
Let’s talk about multi-mode products and why they often don’t sell well in the context of this new laptop from Dell.
Why Multi-Mode Often Sucks
The reason why products that try to bridge between very different modes aren’t successful is because they generally are a compromise, which both costs more and is often seen as inferior to a more focused offering. Amphibious cars tended to be slow and expensive — and had a tendency to sink. Flying cars tended to be unsafe as cars and incredibly unsafe as planes. The one I remember the best was the AVE Mizar, a flying Pinto car that came out in the 1970s. It cost more than a Ferrari to build and the entire executive team died when the car and the plane part separated at altitude, leading to a fiery crash. Why someone would want to pay more than a Ferrari for a Pinto, regardless of what it did, was beyond me. Also, transportation-based hybrid products tend to be more expensive curiosities than successes.
At the core of the failure is the idea of compromise. Hybrid products do more than one thing, but tend to do nothing extremely well and can cost more than focused products—sometimes even costing more than the combined price of the two products they replace.
Where Multi-Mode Succeeds
Multi-mode products usually succeed when the extra function is additive. Can openers with knife sharpeners, for instance. They are good can openers, the knife function is often a no-cost option, and the result is an additional feature. Convertibles are good cars (they have a weight and price penalty) but they are equally good with the top up and down and provide you with an experience that people value. Receivers combine two components that were bought together for a lower price. Smartphones combined the features in three hand-held products (MP3 player, PDA and phone), largely without compromise, for a price (with subsidy) that was often as low as or lower than each offering was separately.
In short, this kind of thing works if it is seen as having value, and where the additional capability is a wanted or needed function, or when the multi-mode part itself is compelling.
The Problem with 2-in-1 Laptops
Laptops tend to optimize at 13.3-inch screens. While the market started with tablets in the 10-inch screen range, according to a group of manufacturers I recently spoke to, it is shifting to 8-inch as the optimum tablet size. Right at the start, that would mean a successful 2-in-1 device couldn’t be a straight compromise because laptop users wouldn’t be happy with a screen that was a less than 13.3-inch screens, and tablet users wouldn’t want a screen much larger than 8- to 10-inches. In addition, the requirement of a keyboard and some kind of a convertible screen adds cost and weight. Most of the products in market, as a result, cost more than comparable laptops or tablets, weigh more than comparable laptops or tablets, and they had screens that were too small to be ideal laptops and too big to be ideal tablets. Now the attach rate of keyboards to tablets is actually rather high, suggesting that it is far easier to create a tablet that can step in for a laptop than the other way around. And right now, the happiest customers are likely those who have bought both laptops and tablets.
Dell Latitude E7240
This Dell laptop is a case in point. It is very light for a laptop at under 3 pounds, it has a high-resolution, 12.5-inch screen which, while slightly smaller than the 13.3-inch screen the laptop market has preferred, is actually very useful thanks to the higher resolution. It has a carbon fiber-like finish on the cover, which gives it a somewhat exotic look, and the keyboard is nicely sized. It uses a flash drive so it feels very fast and it has an optional dock, which helps it transition more easily on and off the desktop. Three USB slots, mini-display port, and HDMI port allow it to move easily between business and home settings and the product is surprisingly good looking. The one I have is Core I5, which allows it to better integrate with management tools and comply with security policies. It also has a touchscreen for Windows 8 integration. This notebook represents the state-of-the- art right now in the notebook market.
This also brings to mind the IBM mainframe lesson. When client/server systems launched in the 1980s, instead of fighting the impression that the mainframe was dead and would be replaced by this new technology, IBM tried to build a better client/server system. For nearly a decade, mainframes remained the better solution, according to folks we surveyed while I was at Dataquest in the 1990s. Today, System Z, IBM’s mainframe, remains its most profitable platform, and Sun, the champion of client/server systems, no longer exists as a separate company. We’ll likely find that the similar declaration that the PC is dead will be equally inaccurate in a few years and perhaps, next time, we’ll be a bit more measured with regard to our excitement surrounding a new hardware or software class.
Wrapping Up: $100 Windows Tablet
Windows tablets in the 8-inch range that use Intel technology are expected to drop near or below $100 by the end of the year. This makes them cheaper than many laptop accessories and, connected to a cloud service like Office 365 or OneDrive, they will allow the user to move nearly seamlessly between the two product classes. This suggests that the best 2-in-1 experience by year’s end will be for those owning both a small laptop and an 8-inch tablet, because the additional cost of the tablet will be lower than the cost premium of a 2-in-1 product and the user will end up with a solution that is ideal in both tablet and laptop mode.
Ultimately, users will likely be happier with both products and not one product that tries to balance between the two modes. However, 8-inch tablets with optional keyboards and aggressively priced larger screened 2-in-1 laptops—neither of which compromises their primary form—are also due out soon and will likely do better than their more compromised predecessors.