There Will Be No Hybrid Device (And That’s Good)

Microsoft insists that the Surface is “the tablet that can replace your laptop.” But even from the press event with enthusiastic demonstrations, and never having held the thing, it’s clear that this simply isn’t true. Yes, it seems passable as a laptop I suppose, but to qualify as something that “replaces” it, it has to be as good or better than a standard laptop (and really, better than a MacBook Air, a much higher bar). It’s clearly not. Its laptop functionality, for one, is a separate add-on, its keyboard not included. Its trackpad is reported to be inferior. Even with the keyboard attached and with the improvements Microsoft has made, it’s still unstable and awkward on a lap, according to reviews. So it fails here.

And as for the tablet part? No one is going to want to use the Surface as a tablet. It’s enormous, it’s heavy, and it has a poor tablet-app ecosystem. Is it passable as a tablet? Maybe? But again, passable isn’t good enough. 

The other selling point left is that is reduces the load of gadgets you carry. But for that to be the kicker, the benefit of having fewer things to lug around has to be so great as to overshadow the device’s other drawbacks. The Surface plus a keyboard weighs 2.42 pounds. A MacBook Air and an iPad Air together weigh 3.96 pounds. We’re not talking about back-breaking differences, here. And the tradeoff is that by having one device instead of two, you have one heavily compromised and inferior device instead of two excellently refined devices (and that presumes you even want to carry both around). I’ll take the extra pound and a half, please.

So while the Surface may be a very well made and interesting device, it’s not the Grand Unified Device it’s being trumpeted as. And it goes a step further in proving that such a device may not exist, or at least oughtn’t.

Bringing this back to Apple, when the top brass at the company made a lot of claims decrying the idea of a unified tablet-Mac hybrid thing, one thing I presumed was that their denials could be standard Apple evasion. Remember, no one wanted to watch videos on an iPod, until Apple made a video iPod. No one wanted to read books anymore, until Apple made an entire bookstore platform. They often look askance at features or ideas, only to adopt them later. I don’t fault them for this. They want the attention on the products they have now, not what they might make someday. 

But after Monday’s WWDC keynote, it’s clear to me that they weren’t bluffing about not melding OS X and iOS. Nor were they just being obstinate. For I certainly thought I wanted this unicorn device, the One Thing I’d Ever Use for both relaxing on the couch and for serious work. And when Apple said they’d never make that device, I also thought that perhaps they were being stubborn, the we-know-better company that they get panned for being so often, by simply folding their arms, sticking their noses up and saying “no!”

I revisit this interview that Craig Federighi, the operating systems guy, and Phil Schiller, the marketing guy, did with Jason Snell at Macworld last year, and you can see just how prescient it is, or rather, how the guys at Apple were telling us exactly what they were doing.

“The reason OS X has a different interface than iOS isn’t because one came after the other or because this one’s old and this one’s new,” Federighi said. Instead, it’s because using a mouse and keyboard just isn’t the same as tapping with your finger. “This device,” Federighi said, pointing at a MacBook Air screen, “has been honed over 30 years to be optimal” for keyboards and mice. Schiller and Federighi both made clear that Apple believes that competitors who try to attach a touchscreen to a PC or a clamshell keyboard onto a tablet are barking up the wrong tree.

“It’s obvious and easy enough to slap a touchscreen on a piece of hardware, but is that a good experience?” Federighi said. “We believe, no.”

“We don’t waste time thinking, ‘But it should be one [interface]!’ How do you make these [operating systems] merge together?’ What a waste of energy that would be,” Schiller said. But he added that the company definitely tries to smooth out bumps in the road that make it difficult for its customers to switch between a Mac and an iOS device—for example, making sure its messaging and calendaring apps have the same name on both OS X and iOS.

“To say [OS X and iOS] should be the same, independent of their purpose? Let’s just converge, for the sake of convergence? [It’s] absolutely a nongoal,” Federighi said. “You don’t want to say the Mac became less good at being a Mac because someone tried to turn it into iOS. At the same time, you don’t want to feel like iOS was designed by [one] company and Mac was designed by [a different] company, and they’re different for reasons of lack of common vision. We have a common sense of aesthetics, a common set of principles that drive us, and we’re building the best products we can for their unique purposes. So you’ll see them be the same where that makes sense, and you’ll see them be different in those things that are critical to their essence.”

Unlike Microsoft and a handful of other manufacturers, Apple sees a unique place for each device in the gadget triad of phone, tablet, and PC. Rather than meld them, and worry about merging for the sake of merging — for the sake of reducing the number of devices one has — they work on perfecting each device within the contexts of their individual places. And instead of hybridizing them, they build bridges, highways, tunnels, and even wormholes between them, drastically reducing the friction for making them cooperate, without making them the same. If they make good on their promises from WWDC, they will have proven that strategy to be very right.   

(How this will play out with a larger-screened iPhone, or dare I say it, an iPhablet, remains to be seen, though I feel some dread about it.)

And for Microsoft and its would-be customers, the question is begged, why would I want my tablet to replace my laptop? Yes, it’s great when new functionality comes to existing device categories. More data-sharing and third-party support on iOS will be great for letting me do more on my iPad, for example, but I don’t want new features at the cost of the iPad being a crummier tablet. And I really do want to replace the laptop I have (an aging 2011 11″ MacBook Air), but I want to replace it with a better laptop, not a worse laptop that also happens to be tablet-like. Who would?

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