Are hybrids and convertibles the future of computing, or destined to fail?

Lenovo Yoga hybrid tablet

The Yoga is Lenovo’s answer to the iPad, designed to exploit a very real weakness: Despite how wonderful the iPad is for entertainment, it sucks for real work. Adding a keyboard helps, explaining why a keyboard is one of the most popular accessories for the iPad. The best of them connect solidly to the tablet so you can use the whole thing in your lap, and some cases which hold both together, preventing the keyboard and tablet from beating each other to an ugly death in your computer bag or purse.

Lenovo recently snatched the number one PC vendor spot from HP, and it pulled out all of the stops to get there. The Yoga is only one of a number of innovative devices that Lenovo plans to release. But Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, blasted the effort as combining a “refrigerator with a toaster” in order to dull the effort on convertibles (Lenovo is only one of a number of vendors that will have convertibles and hybrids in market). Is he right, or is he full of just as much BS as Steve Jobs was when he said video was stupid on an iPod, eReaders would never sell (because people didn’t read and single purpose devices like say oh, the original iPod was, can’t be successful), or (ironically) tablets wouldn’t work because people required keyboards.

Convertibles vs. hybrids vs. iPads

What’s the difference between a convertible and a hybrid tablet? With a convertible, the screen remains attached to the tablet, while with a hybrid, the two can be disconnected. The iPad has been able to approach these two concepts successfully for some time with accessories. For instance, the iPad will hard dock with keyboards like the MiniSuit, so the combination can sit on your lap — this is a hybrid configuration. On the other hand the Trent Arcadia Airbender Case essentially turns the iPad into a laptop, and this is a convertible configuration.

To draw a car analogy, buying an iPad is like buying a convertible car without the top . You can get one, but you have to buy it on the aftermarket. (There have been a few low-run premium cars that have done this over the years, but generally you buy the car and the top together.) The Yoga is a convertible as you would typically buy one off the lot – top included.

Dell Inspiron hybrid tabletThe hybrid approach has the advantage of low weight; and with some designs, increased battery life and an office dock. If you don’t need the keyboard, you can leave it connected and leave it behind only taking the tablet. The keyboard can also provide a second battery (like the Asus Transformer Prime Android tablet) effectively doubling the battery life when connected. The disadvantage is you often have to buy this component separately, and the combined total can be both heavier and more complex.

The advantage of a convertible is that you always have the keyboard with you, and there is typically no connector to break. The hinge designs, because they don’t have to connect and disconnect, are simpler, cheaper and less likely to be damaged. The disadvantage is that convertibles can be more expensive initially, and are heavier in tablet mode. Both configurations work better on your lap than a separate (non-docked) tablet and keyboard, like the Windows 8 Samsung tablet I’m currently using.

With two separate components that don’t physically connect, you have to carry a stand for the tablet when you use it with the keyboard, and because the stand typically doesn’t work on your lap, you’ll also need a table or an empty chair to put the tablet on instead.

Betting on gullibility

Tim Cook knows that connecting a keyboard and a tablet to create a touch laptop computer isn’t like blending a refrigerator and toaster. He likely sees his own customer using iPads all the time with the keyboards Apple sells, and notebooks have clearly been successful (I’m pretty sure Apple sells these too). But he doesn’t want to embrace a design that could eliminate customers who are now buying both a MacBook and an iPad, which is the true value of a convertible or hybrid. You don’t need two products. If that were to happen, Apple’s revenues would fall. Regardless of whether customers want this as a choice, profit trumps customer need at most companies, including Apple. If Apple were in the car business, it would be selling a car without a top for sunny days, and a second, much larger car with a roof for cloudy days, because they’d want to sell you two cars.

That said, Apple is pretty damn successful at convincing us that we want what it uniquely sells, so maybe this says more about how gullible we are than it does about these designs. Did you actually think putting a tablet and a keyboard together was like melding a refrigerator and toaster, or more like a convertible car with a retractable roof?

Sadly, I imagine a lot of folks thought Cook was right. Ironically, many of them probably consumed Cook’s comments on an iPad in a case that wedded it to a keyboard. Yep, many of us are that gullible. The success of products like the Lenovo Yoga will depend of people seeing the products for what they are, not how Tim Cook wants them to be seen. I’ll grant you that a convertible tends to be more complex and problematic than a hard top, but I still think it is a hell of a lot more practical than a car without a top at all.