Save the Windows Laptop by Designing Tablets

Updated on 10 August 2013 by


Is ‘Windows’ Microsoft’s biggest problem when it comes to being relevant in a world of computing that’s mobile, fun, social and always-on.  The laptop, for example, is still viewed by most people as a place where you work. No social, no gaming and a 5-minute wait until the laptop finishes updating and then tells you that you really should go and find the power adaptor. Heavy, noisy, hot, boring, boring, BORING. ‘Windows’ is largely responsible for this having focused on ‘work’ for much of its lifetime.  Adding a new touch layer to ‘Windows’ doesn’t instantly make Windows an exciting operating system, despite the work that Microsoft has put into every layer of that ecosystem. By designing tablets that turn into laptops, however, there’s a better opportunity. Roll with the punch, Microsoft.

Windows 8 has over 100 million installs now which makes it interesting for developers looking at the Windows 8 Store but you can guarantee that only a fraction of those 100 million Windows 8 owners aren’t interested in clicking, not touching, through to it again after they’ve seen poor implementations of Twitter clients and no official Instagram or Facebook client.  Working that mousepad to get the best out of Windows 8’s modern UI isn’t exactly fun either. The hurdles, including the commonly pre-conceived idea that Windows is not cool, are too great. Offering a lower-cost entry point doesn’t appear to help either. Windows RT has failed so far although there’s an app-issue to be taken into account here before Windows RT can be called a failure.

Maybe Intel’s name doesn’t help either. It’s associated with hot, heavy and work-focused activities. Sure, you can now buy an Ultrabook that you don’t have to turn off but who’s aware of that? Who cares?

The Media aren’t helping because there’s nothing hugely different to report on in the PC or laptop market. Everything looks the same as it was and it’s far easier to get readers eyes and clicks with a ‘fail’ story.  If you’re planning on building readership, a falling market is not the one you want to concentrate on. Tablets, Smartphones and the tease of new forms of gadgets, including smart watches, flexible screens, connected cameras and apps are much more interesting from a business perspective.

This leads me to a question that I’ve been thinking about and writing about for 7 years. Intel and Microsoft, I believe, have also been working on it for at least as long. I lost sleep over it more than once in the last week so I’ve decided to tackle the subject again.

What could make the PC interesting again? Trying to change the laptop is not the ideal solution, although it was pretty much the only option available given the hardware and software available. The Ultrabook has done everything it could have done to change the way PCs and components are designed. The next stage is to move away from the laptop design and focus on using momentum and quality in Microsoft’s market. Create the Windows 8 Phone-focused tablet that can be turned into a laptop.

You’ve already seen Intel and partners working on this. It’s called the dockable Ultrabook. You’ve heard Intel talk about it too. “It’s a tablet when you want it, and a laptop when you need it.” There’s nothing new in what I’m saying here apart from a new ‘bridge’ needed by Microsoft.

Hardware is ready

haswell 1-chipStep one is obviously to catch up with what’s going on in the rest of the computing space in terms of mainstream features. Always-on, stylish design, cool brands, apps, low cost.

Laptops can now be always-on, always connected. [Demo] The apps are coming, slowly, and the improving economics are helping to accelerate the growth of Windows 8 apps. Style is there too although style is fighting against cost in a big way.

Cost – that problem is nearly solved too. Intel have reached a point where the mainboard can be incredibly small. Get the mainboard small and integrated and costs drop considerably. Component count is down, component choices are down in some designs and that means they will eventually be cheaper to produce than traditional mainboards. Smaller mainboards mean smaller Ultrabooks which, don’t forget, use less casing materials, are cheaper to ship and cheaper to store.  One more thing – as the platform becomes more efficient, less battery is required. The sealed Ultrabook could eventually be the cheapest type of laptop to produce.

Step one is largely complete.

Step two is all about marketing and here’s where the biggest problem lies. Moving the mindset but keeping those old ‘Windows’ and ‘Intel’ brands is the biggest hurdle of all.

I recently had a comment on an article shared on a social network: “I stopped reading when you mentioned Windows.” I know the commenter well and I was shocked that the word Windows meant this reader was effectively un-approachable because of a brand name.

How do you take ‘Microsoft’ , ‘Intel’, and ‘Windows’ out of the equation? Or how do you make customers take a second look despite those fuddy duddy brands?

Removing ‘Intel’ branding is the easy bit. No-one really needs to know it’s Intel inside but they do need to know it’s that unique platform inside. ‘Ultrabook’ is a good start but even that keyword is not the media’s favorite and is relatively unknown in the mainstream. Maybe a key design change could be the cue for customers to sit up and take notice.

What if every laptop was a dockable tablet first?

AS-NB-P3-Benefit_images-01I like the idea of dockable tablets because it breaks from the laptop form factor-of-old and connects with the tablet/screen-first idea of the future. If the keyboard is becoming a secondary requirement then bundle it with an additional battery, ports and storage and sell it as an accessory. Even ‘desktop’ could be sold as an upgrade. Keeping entry-level costs down by taking the tablet-first approach will help.

The dockable tablet as the physical ‘cue’ turns the problem of retracting PC sales on its head. It sides with the growing tablet market. Screen first, not keyboard. The dockable, I believe, is the clear way to successfully change the laptop in the eyes of the consumer. Traditional laptop and desktop sales will retract but growth in the still-unique dockable laptop segment, will balance that, especially as Android and Apple tablets trend towards smaller screen sizes.

‘Ultrabook’ may well work as a brand with this detachable/convertible/hybrid/dockable concept. Acer have already used the Ultrabook brand to sell in the way I describe above. The P3 Ultrabook is effectively a tablet with a bundled tailored Bluetooth keyboard and case. “Redefining the Computer” says the advertising.

The problem here is that desktop is horrible on a tablet and Windows 8 apps are trailing expectations.


phone 8 (2)Windows Tablet&Phone

How do you make Windows cool and solve that app problem? You start by splitting Windows ‘Metro’ from the desktop and moving it into a new product area.

Laptops don’t need this touch user interface, desktops don’t need it. Only tablets need it. Windows 8 Phones already have it.

Moving ‘Tablet’ and ‘Phone’ together makes much more sense than bundling ‘PC’ and ‘Tablet’ together. At the core of this change in the Windows architecture would be a move to a unified app ecosystem. This is the only way that Microsoft can quickly boost the essential economics for developers. They won’t come if they can’t make money.

Combining the two software ecosystems is, I believe, close. 2014 close. Windows ‘RT’, for want of a better name, is an environment that already has the always-on capability, can run multiple apps side-by-side (Windows 8.1 improves this) and is sensor-ready. The Windows NT kernel is already common between the two platforms. Then there’s Windows Blue project which is now rumored to be exactly what I’m talking about above.

The  move would lever the good progress Microsoft is making with Phone 8. Compare the media response to Windows Phone 8 to that of Windows 8! Nokia are helping to make Windows phone 8 cool and that momentum can be used to the tablets advantage. Want to go ‘pro’? Buy the dock.

There are some other exciting options too and the hooks are already there for Windows Phone and Windows Tablet (RT/Metro) interworking. SkyDrive is in place, Intel are working on device-aware services too. Although I don’t see the Windows Phone ever physically docking into a tablet, I do see close interworking, sync and sharing of the resources of the two devices.

Roll With the Punch

You can’t instantly make a PC, cool but you can work with the momentum in the industry and build something that pivots around phone/tablet and enables an optional PC mode, for when work needs to be done and characters need to be typed.

In terms of hardware, we’re close to a point where the laptop could primarily be a tablet. The dockable tablets are getting better, quickly [Here’s a live list of dockable tablets I prepared using our databases.] Ignore screen size and weight issues because that problem is already being solved. You can already get a Windows 8 PC, in a tablet, in less than 600gm / 1.3lbs and that figure will close in on the best of the ARM-based tablets in the future. Foldable, flexible, modular and roll-able screens will also play a part. On the OS side of things, the fusion of Windows Phone and Windows RT/Metro/Modern is the best option. Disassociate the touch UI from laptops and desktops but continue to offer the dockable advantage and upsell. Modular solutions do reduce the range of PCs a manufacturer could offer (sell one modular tablet instead of a tablet and a laptop?) but there are advantages with shorter renewal cycle and of course, larger market.

Use the value in the Windows 8 Phone market and the momentum in the tablet markets to create attractive screen-based devices that have upsell value. Don’t try and fix the laptop. Create new tablets.

As for the name of this new PC, I don’t think Ultrabook fits that well.  Surface is pretty good though and there’s no reason why that can’t be used in the future, by all manufacturers. I’m no marketer though so I’ll leave that bit to the experts.

Do you like the idea of the dockable? Do you think that combining the ‘RT’ and Phone ecosystems would be enough to catalyse the important developer ecosystem? Should we start a new blog about hybrid PCs? My feeling is that it’s coming anyway and in the near future I’ll be forced to push UMPCPortal and Ultrabooknews together to cover the new hybrid world of Windows phone, tablet and laptop.

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9 Comments For This Post

  1. Mike says:

    I agree with this entire post. the problem you didn’t mention is the the aspect ratio tablets work best in portrait mode such as reading books, magazines, and websites most tablets are advertised to be used in portrait mode such as nexus 7 and the ipad. most laptops are 16:9 they work ok as laptops but as tablets like the surface pro (that I own) are terrible in portrait mode their are too long and skinny the problem here is that windows optimizes for a wide screen aspect ratio like multi tasking in metro I know in windows 8.1 their trying to fix it but as long as Microsoft pushes widescreen in their products such as surface rt and pro all the oem’s will follow them in making wide screen tablets. Also the problem is that for the desktop 4:3 is not too great so you need to compromise the aspect ratio I would say 3:2 like the chromebook pixel or nook hd+ not too wide like 16:9 but not to square like 4:3 well that’s the end of my rant.

  2. Steve Chippy Paine says:

    The aspect ratio question is an interesting topic. I, for example, like the thinner taller tablets in portrait mode for better thumb access to keyboard while still showing more of the screen….as long as the tablet is light enough.

  3. Adam says:

    Let’s go ahead and ignore the REAL problem facing PCs and ESPECIALLY thin and light devices with long battery life, which is THE @#$%% PRICE! Intel has tried EVERYTHING EXCEPT producing a modern computer (thin, light, long battery life) that is priced appropriately. -That is to say that it needs to be priced at a VOLUME price of $400-$700 dollars.

    The markup on all things Ultrabook and ESPECIALLY the processor is THE #1 reason that sales are languishing and tablets are annhilating PCs.

    I’ve said it for the past few years on this site and I’ll continue to say it as long as the sales numbers prove me right and Intel refuses to drop their exorbiant markup.

    The way it stands the PC’s tombstone will read: “Murdered by Intel”.

    -They’ll unchain Atom (I mean “pentium”) a little bit in January / February and we’ll see sales do very well; it’s a shame they won’t do it before Christmas. They’re going to kill the whole ecosystem if they’re not careful, the greedy bastards.

  4. Adam says:

    Nothing you’ve listed in this article or so many other articles matters if they don’t even come to the “high mobility, high usability, low price” fight.

    So far they’ve been too scared (of their stock price dropping) to even show up. They could win the war in a hurry if they’d quite focusing on the high end and start focusing on the VOLUME.

  5. Deceir says:

    Microsoft’s problem is simple, it’s not Apple, it’s Google. Apple will always have their niche tech audience over in the corner. Microsoft is a mass market company but so is Google.

    Google has effectively stolen MS partners & their business model & given it away for free. Not only is it practically impossible for MS to make inroads on Android at this point, but Google is also directly targeting Windows itself by slowly turning ChromeOS into a “real” OS with native apps & offline functionality.

    There is only 1 simple solution to this simple problem, Windows HAS to be given away for free sometime within the next few years. But considering Windows is MS’s 2nd largest revenue stream, MS has to get their services running on a much larger scale first. Unfortunately for MS, Google has them beat there as well.

    It’s already over for Windows Phone, it’s dead. The only reason partners haven’t abandoned it like they have RT is so that they can avoid paying MS royalties on Android (contractual settlement). If MS decides to never give Windows away then it will become much like Linux as a background server OS while ChromeOS becomes the mass market consumer grade OS.

    Personally I want MS to survive, I am 1 of the few people that actually like W8. But honestly I think we are witnessing the beginning of the end. MS was simply outmaneuvered.

    What we are all witnessing is the rise of 1 superpower & the fall of another. What Google has done with Android, ChromeOS, & all their online services, is the most brilliant move in the history of the tech industry, even greater than anything Apple has ever done. MS was the incumbent of all incumbents, by displacing them Google will become the largest superpower in the world over the next decade (Apple, MS, Facebook, are all in fear of this).

  6. Clio says:

    If I were Microsoft trying to save “Windows”, I will review the current situation and :
    – I will realise that mobile OSes has disrupted traditional PCs, they can covers most, if not all, of the use cases of traditional Windows PCs for the average people.
    – I will identify I have access to a battle ground outside of “Mobile”: the “Home”
    – I will realise it’s a tough fight on the “Mobile” front, I’m late to market, my tablets and mobile phones are trailing and the best I could hope for is only to catch up and match what the opposition offered.
    – On the “Home” front, I have much more to leverage that’s not available to the opposition: Raw processing power from Intel, XBox, Kinnect, Home-server(how ironic), existing PC installations…

    Then, I would realise I MUST act now, while over 50% of the general public still feel compelled to have a windows-PC at home (even an outdated one).

    My strategy will be to establish “Windows” as the digital-backbone not only at the workplace, but at home as well. I will make “Windows” interface/communicate not only with TVs, Consoles & Sound systems, but light-switches, washing machines, fridges, thermometers, plant pot sensors, watering systems, pet-collars, baby-collars, door locks, smoke detectors and garage doors as well, even the sofa and rubbish bin if at all possible. I will also leverage what I have like the raw-power from Intel processors, and the Kinnect sensor array to truely fuse the Physical home with “Windows”. I will work with/bribe/subsidize/coerce other companies to make windows-compatible sensors and appliances while I still have the wrestling, marketing & financial power.

    Once “Windows” has a firm hold of the “Home” market -again-, and delivering something other platforms can not, the platform will give a unique niche to Mobile products running it, and Microsoft will finally have a good footing to support a meaningful punch back at Google on the mobile front, whom has been firmly planting his feet on the cloud all these years.

  7. Mr.Chainsaw says:

    I am so dissapointed!
    Why does everyone only design laptops that are also tablets?!
    What kind of bullshit is this?
    If I wanted a tablet i spend ~200€ and have a nice, light, small tablet and i am happy with it.
    But if I want a laptop, all I get is this glossy shit with convertible screens and touch bullshit, that makes it heavier and more expensive.
    It’s ok if there are SOME of these, but it feels like there are no normal light notebooks anymore.

    I WANT A MATTE SCREEN. I also want high build quality and a small form factor ~11″. Oh and I need a displayport. I am waiting for this for yeas now.

    And I don’t need Windows. Especially not Windows 8.

  8. Joe says:

    Ya, I don’t care about touch on a notebook either. I’m staying with my Thinkpad X230 for now. I’m running Arch Linux on it.

  9. raspberry pi says:

    naturally like your web site but you need to test the spelling on quite a few of your posts. A number of them are rife with spelling problems and I find it very troublesome to inform the truth then again I will certainly come again again.

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