Is Apple CEO Tim Cook Right? Are Laptop-Tablet Hybrids Dead in the Water?

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Robert Galbraith / Reuters

Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks on stage during an Apple event introducing the new iPad in San Francisco, California March 7, 2012.

Apple CEO Tim Cook says the idea of a laptop-tablet hybrid is tantamount to shoving a toaster into a refrigerator. It’s a clever, sound-bite-y analogy. It’s also wrongheaded. But before we go there, let’s give Cook’s comments the full podium treatment, so no one can say I’m taking him out of context.

The analogy comes from Apple’s earnings call on Tuesday (via Seeking Alpha’s transcription), during which researcher Anthony Sacconaghi asked Cook whether Apple’s tablets and laptops might someday join not just hands, but full-on form factors. Here’s Cook’s response:

I think, Tony, anything can be forced to converge. But the problem is that products are about trade-offs, and you begin to make trade-offs to the point where what you have left at the end of the day doesn’t please anyone. You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator, but those things are probably not going to be pleasing to the user … you wouldn’t want to put these things together because you wind up compromising in both and not pleasing either user. Some people will prefer to own both, and that’s great, too. But I think to make the compromises of convergence, so — we’re not going to that party. Others might. Others might from a defensive point of view, particularly. But we’re going to play in both.

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Now Cook is right that when you hybridize, you sometimes wind up with diminished totals. Think of all the low- and high-tech products over the decades (or centuries, really) that seemed like good ideas to someone at the time, but wound up flopping (Colgate Kitchen Entrees, I’m looking at you).

But that’s a glass-half-empty way of examining the past. Most of what we use, technology-wise, is some kind of hybrid. Laptops, for example, are just shrunken desktops with standalone screens clamped on through a hinge. The iPhone is itself a hybrid of standalone technologies: a phone, a music player, a camera, a computer, a rolodex, a daily organizer, a stopwatch, a handheld game system and so forth. All of these things existed (or still do) as unique objects. As little as five years ago, if you’d told me I’d be playing Street Fighter IV on a 3.5-inch touchscreen without tactile buttons, or that a movie shot entirely with an iPhone would win the “best short film” prize at the 61st Berlin International Film Festival, I would’ve called that crazy talk — hybridization, by any measure.

And Apple already makes a tablet/laptop hybrid of sorts: It’s called “an iPad with a wireless Apple keyboard.” No, you don’t physically snap the iPad into a screen hinge, but the setup — the iPad propped at an angle, the keyboard facing it at a slightly-great-than-90-degree-angle — is just a few steps away from what Sacconaghi was getting at. If you buy a case that combines both parts, you’ve all but built your own tablet/laptop hybrid today: all that’s missing is a touchpad and OS X.

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Imagine a thinner iPad (think MacBook Air 11.6-inch display territory) using a material like liquidmetal (for reinforcement) that could snap into or out of a key-bed with a touchpad. Now imagine that iPad running iOS (in tablet mode), but operating as a dumb display when docked (in OS X mode). Data could either be synchronized through the cloud or a local iOS-OS X connection mechanic. Sound like a bad idea? It might be, and anyone who isn’t tuned into design nuances or versed in manufacturing logistics is probably just pipe-dreaming. I’m not going to claim a hybrid Apple tablet/laptop would sell, in other words. But Cook’s anti-convergence speech takes things a bridge too far: It dismisses the idea of convergence by suggesting that the principle is flawed, when in fact it’s the bedrock on which Apple has built its empire.

My guess is that the real reason Cook flat out rejects the idea of a tablet/laptop hybrid has more to do with Apple wanting to sell iPads and MacBooks. From a business standpoint, that’s legitimate — why cut sales by inventing a product no one’s clamoring for anyway? And as tablet and laptop prices continue to drop, Cook’s argument that people who need both will just own both seems sound. But if at some point Apple ever opts to put a toe in the tablet/laptop water, sign me up as “definitely interested.”

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