It's been not-quite three years since Apple released the first iPad. Already tablets seem ubiquitous. Apple dominated the market against lackluster Android-based competitors until the Kindle Fire came on the scene and opened up the enormous ecosystem of Amazon on a cheap, quality machine. That was barely a year ago.
Simultaneously, Apple innovated on netbooks to create the premium MacBook Air, which led Intel to develop the new Ultrabook brand. The Air and it's Ultrabook competition brought for the first time sufficient power and utility down to small scales. Professionals could depend on one small machine for all their productivity needs.
And yet, as close as the 11.6" Air and 9.7" iPad are to one another, they face a wide gap. Despite Bluetooth keyboards, and wireless optical drives and productivity apps, no single device has claimed the niche in the middle. The sweet spot. A convergence of tablet and PC, fully capable--at least sufficient--for professional environments with the sleekness, ease of use and chic of a slim tablet. So we go on, keeping tablets at home for the couch and laptops stuffed in bags for meetings.
There are two obstacles: operating system and hardware. The operating system is what keeps Apple from success, or even competition, here. It's not an unsolvable problem, but their simplistic iOS--practically unchanged in user experience since the original iPhone--just wouldn't cut it as a PC replacement. And aside from a sleek profile, the MacBook Air doesn't offer any tablet-like amenities. It's not touch friendly. You can't use it face-to-screen, immersing yourself in a smooth experience. Even on the couch, you're separated from your device by the ever-present keyboard.
Now Windows 8 is on the scene. For the first time, it's a PC-oriented OS that is built for touch. Yes, it has an awkward duality between the modern interface and the old desktop. It's transitional. But it's a real leap forward. We don't know yet whether that leap of faith will reward Microsoft with sales and prestige, but it has helped push OEMs, led by Intel's Ultrabook brand, to explore the frontier. These machines are true convertibles, more laptop than tablet perhaps, but they are pushing the hardware frontier to see what works and what doesn't. That's innovation and it's a delight to see.
And of course, Microsoft has offered it's own take on convergence, the Surface. It might be the boldest attempt at inventing a new niche. So far, it's not exactly selling like hotcakes. But that may be in in large part due to the release of the Surface with Windows RT before the Surface Pro, its beefier cousin. Windows RT doesn't offer backwards compatibility to legacy Windows applications (read: no Steam). Surface Pro is a full-fledged, Intel-based offering in the same format of the Surface RT but with much more respectable specs. It's main compromise is battery life--which is no joke when trying to perfect this format. Surface Pro arrives February 9th and previews have been largely favorable, at least compared to the attention Surface RT received.
Will the Surface really define the genre like Apple did with tablets and the iPad? I doubt it. I predict the Surface acts more like a seed, much like how Google's flagship devices helped spur innovation in Android handsets. Now Android is a smooth experience running on premium devices--this was not always the case. And even though Google never got everything right, as the software writers they took the opportunity to showcase their hardware goals and push for Android done right.
It may be very much the same for Microsoft with Surface. As the authors of an innovative, if transitional, operating system, it's on them to point in the right direction and say, "Go forth!". Where the hardware ends up, perhaps as Windows 9 rolls around and finishes the software transition, is anyone's guess. I am skeptical of the convertibles that are two pieces, keyboard and screen, stuck together. One is bound to have a piece missing at a crucial time. The Surface has an interesting approach with their Touch and Type Covers that can be detached but serve as useful screen protectors in the interim. Fancy hinges have to be done right. I for one can't stand the idea of the Yoga by Lenovo.
As I look to replacing my aging MacBook Pro, and not wanting to part with two grand this time around, I am eagerly considering my options for a convergence between laptop and tablet, a touch-enabled device that is intuitive, productive and engaging. Apple will come on the scene soon, no doubt, but until that time Windows 8 is pushing forward and I am excited to see what comes next.