What is a hybrid? It is a quantum probability. It might be a notebook, or it might be a tablet. It only becomes one or the other when you decide to use it. By way of contrast, my iMac knows exactly what it is at all times. It hovers over my desk in the same spot, in the same way everyday. I attack it, and my day, with a keyboard, a mouse, and a Magic Trackpad. (Yep, I use all three.) My iMac is not mysterious. It is not exciting. It is unapologetically a desktop computer, comfortable in its own skin. A hybrid is so busy trying to be everything, and spends so little time being anything in particular, that we just don't know what it is or how to use it. ...And that's before we even get into the problem with hybrids.
Even combo devices have to be primarily something. A hybrid is a combination between a notebook computer and a tablet. These form factors are sufficiently different as to prevent a perfect fusion that brings out the best of both. To put it in biblical terms, one must increase while the other decreases. A device can have two functions, but must be primarily one or the other.
A hybrid that is primarily a notebook is built differently than one that is primarily a tablet. Both consumers and manufacturers have standardized on the hinged clamshell as the best form factor for notebooks. A notebook-first product must start there. The more solid the connection, the better the experience. However, tablets want to be free, untethered from keyboards and other peripherals. A solidly attached, hinged clamshell is decidedly suboptimal for a tablet. It is like trying to combine a cheese grater and a knife. There is simply no way to combine the two and get the best of both.
There is also a conflict of geometry. A notebook screen likes to be wide, while a tablet screen prefers to be more squared. Tablets shaped like notebooks are comically awkward when held in portrait orientation. The very shape seems to force a landscape orientation which is awkward for many tablet uses. Notebooks do not have a portrait mode. Therefore, if something is a notebook first, then landscape mode is forced on the tablet. If it is a tablet first, then it will feel a bit odd as a notebook. Almost all hybrids choose the notebook geometry, guaranteeing a subpar tablet experience.
The best hybrids are the ones that know what they primarily are. The Yoga line is a good example of this. They are primarily notebooks with some tablet functionality. I can't think of any good examples of the reverse. A tablet wants to be thin, light, with long-lasting battery, and free from attachments. Adding a keyboard to it will always feel a bit kludgy. The keyboard has to be easily detachable. That means it will not be secure enough, or integrated enough to be usable in traditional, notebook settings. Adding to the challenge is the software.
There is no hybrid software
As daunting as the hardware challenge is, the software challenge is even greater. The biggest hurdle for software developers is the interface. There is no such thing as good software with a bad interface. If the interface is bad, so is the software, no matter what it is capable of doing. If humans can't use it well, then it is no good. Modern tablets are designed for direct touch manipulation. Traditional PC software is designed for manipulation by indirect pointing devices. Seldom shall the twain meet.
If something is designed for an indirect pointing device like a mouse and cursor, then the targets want to be small and precise. For direct touch from fingers, the opposite is true. Targets want to be larger and a bit fuzzy. To understand this better, compare the size of a fingerprint to the size of the tip of a mouse pointer. If something needs the precision of that pointer tip, your finger will never be sufficient. It is just too big. It touches too many things at once. The hardware and software of capacitive touch screens has to be smart enough to ignore what you touched, and know what you meant to touch. Notebook software can only ever afford to respond to what the activating pixels actually touched.
Software designed for one type of thing simply cannot work well on the other. You cannot write once and apply it to all interfaces. Consider software that is intended to be used hands-free, or eyes-free. Those are different challenges that require different interfaces. How about eye-tracking? Involuntary eye movement has to be taken into account. The eye takes in many things at once. It is even less precise than a fingertip. Now, let's put on our thinking caps, literally. Consider a neural interface that works with brain waves. That will force developers to rethink everything. The point is that for the application to be useful, it has to be written to accommodate specific methods of interaction.
...And that is just the beginning of the software crisis.
The operating system is even more fundamental to the computing experience. In the Windows world, all hybrid devices run a single OS. Windows 7 was supposed to have been finger friendly, but was decidedly a desktop OS driven by indirect pointing devices. This has been the failure of all tablet PCs. Windows is desktop first, no matter the rhetoric coming from Redmond. Windows 8 was Microsoft's attempt to change that. Rather than finger-friendly, they called it touch-first.
Windows 8 was designed for touchscreen devices. Unfortunately, it is still Windows, and is still too deeply rooted in the desktop to fully be shed of it. If an OS is designed for touch, then it has no place on a traditional PC, or anything pretending to be a traditional PC. The masses seem to agree with this assessment. If it is designed for the desktop, it has no place on a direct-touch tablet. Windows 8 has elements of both. You simply cannot have a full Windows experience without the desktop. Even Microsoft acknowledges this. Windows RT, an OS that only comes preinstalled on tablets, has elements of the traditional desktop. For both tablets and notebooks, it is the worst of both world. At the current time, hybrid PCs are a lamentable mess!
A perfect market for the Apple touch
Apple is at its best when it comes into a market that is promising, but messy. They saw that opportunity with digital music, and provided an elegant solution with the iPod and iTunes. They saw that with smartphones; enter the iPhone. They took the mess Microsoft made of tablets and created the iPad. Everyone expects them to do the same with smart watches. I believe that hybrids are also such a market. I believe there are solutions to all of the challenges I have outlined above. Here are a few:
If the upcoming iPad Pro is a hybrid, as I hope it will be, then it will be an iPad first. I expect it will keep the iPad ratio which works very well for tablets in both orientations. It will be as thin and light as a 13" tablet can be. I suspect there will be an equally thin and light keyboard as an optional accessory. The keyboard will be able to integrate will with the iPad as it will be designed by Apple with that in mind. The fact that it has not been done well by others does not bean that it cannot be done well. I believe this will be the biggest challenge of the Apple hybrid, and that Apple will surprise us with something no one has thought about so far. There is a reason Ive gets paid the big bucks, and we don't.
The software challenge has a rather obvious solution, one that even PC vendors are starting to figure out. Run two operating systems. Apple will not simply throw a touch layer onto Mac OS. Though I suspect it would make the leap more elegantly than any version of Windows to date. Apple already has a superior touch OS in the form of iOS. Mac OS is a superior laptop OS. At the moment, there is no public version of Mac OS that can be run on ARM. I suspect they have something like that running just fine in one of their labs. This is only a technological hurdle up until the moment Apple announces that it is not. Also, you don't really think that 64-bit processor is just for playing Candy Crush on your iPhone, do you? I believe there is a reason Apple presented it as desktop-class architecture.
As for software, once everything is running on the same silicon, it will be a small matter to make universal binaries just as we have for the iPhone and iPad. Those apps will have separate interfaces. There will be one experience when using the device as an iPad, and another for use as a notebook. There will be none of this madness of trying to develop one interface for different uses. I suspect many apps will be separate purchases just as they are now. There are applications that have an iPad version and a Mac version. I expect that to continue. The user can determine if one or both experiences are worthwhile. I suspect the user will be able to hot-switch operating systems as easily and seamlessly as switching apps. If you choose an app that requires Mac OS, it will switch to it.
In conclusion, I want to acknowledge that there are other ways of dealing with the software problem. Two operating systems are not required. Apple can stick with iOS for an all-touch solution. In that event, the challenge will be what I call the PhotoShop problem. People have different tests for what constitutes a "real computer". Inevitably, someone will ask if it can run PhotoShop. Programmers will ask if it can compile code. I find these arbitrary tests, as the computers that compile code and run PhotoShop are not servers, nor are they supercomputers. Yet, they are still considered real computers. There is no reason that PhotoShop or coding should determine the status of the current iPad as a real computer.
That said. the PhotoShop test will have to be addressed in a new class of device. I see no reason why an A7-powered device could not run PhotoShop. The engine is not the problem. It is the interface. Look at a few screenshots of PhotoShop. It can't be done with touch alone. It has to be rewritten and rethought for touch. That is Apple's challenge. They can easily throw more ram at the iPad. All the system resources in the world will not make PhotoShop a delight to use on a touch device. That is true of so many other programs that live exclusively on the desktop.
If Apple does not port Mac OS to the tablet, then they will have to rethink interfaces for professional applications. They will have their hands full with their own suite of pro apps. It is hard to imagine running the full experience of Logic Studio on an iPad, even a big one. That is not to say that it cannot be done. It is almost certain that Apple has a head start on other developers with regards to rethinking pro app interfaces for touch devices. Apple could present their hybrid fully capable of running all of their pro apps, and it still wouldn't run PhotoShop until Adobe wrapped their head around the challenge. Adobe is the company that tried to push Flash onto mobile devices. I don't like their chances.
I could see Apple offering the dual-OS solution while pushing the industry towards a touch framework for pro apps. That is the kind of change that will take years to complete. Till then, I see the best solution for an iPad Pro hybrid to be a keyboard with a built-in pointing solution. At the moment, pro apps simply can't be run any other way. A third option is to spawn a new class of semi-pro apps for next-generation tablet devices. I will explore that possibility in a follow-up post in the near future.