PALO ALTO, Calif. -- In the three years since Apple launched the iPad, a once-crazy idea has grown to become conventional wisdom: The PC is dying. Every few months, market analysts release reports showing staggering growth in tablet sales and an ever-grimmer future for traditional laptops and desktops. Just this week, research firm the NPD Group reported that in 2013, tablet sales would eclipse those of notebook computers for the first time. By 2017, NPD predicts, tablets will outpace notebooks 3-to-1.
These numbers bolster Apple's view of the future. PCs aren't going away, the company has long argued, but they'll be rare. You might reach for a machine with a big screen and a powerful processor when you want to do something intensive -- edit a spreadsheet, say -- but most of your computing time will be spent on smaller devices with more limited capabilities. A year before he died, Steve Jobs sketched out this future in an interview at the D8 Conference. "When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks, because that's what you needed on the farms. PCs are going to be like trucks," Jobs predicted. "They are still going to be around," but "one out of X people will need them."
At that same conference a few nights later, Microsoft's CEO Steve Ballmer dismissed Jobs' automobile metaphor. "Windows machines are not going to be trucks! They're not!" he insisted. Instead, Ballmer offered what seemed, at the time, to be an oddly semantic defense of Microsoft's future. Tablets won't replace PCs because tablets are PCs, he argued. "I think the PC as we know it will continue to morph form factor," Ballmer said. PCs might look different, but "I think there will exist a general-purpose device that does everything you want, because I don't think the whole world is going to be able to afford five devices per person." More than once during the interview, Ballmer said, "The real question is, What's a PC?"
Now, finally, we're getting a glimpse of what Ballmer was getting at. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas recently, PC makers are showing off a variety of laptops and desktops that look completely different from your father's PCs. Call these machines "hybrids," "convertibles," or maybe just call them very weird. Several companies showed off laptops whose screens detach to become tablets. Stranger still were the desktops that double as tablets. See Lenovo's IdeaCentre Horizon, for example, a 27-inch all-in-one desktop that can be flipped on its back to become something like a tabletop touch-screen PC. What would you do with such a huge tablet? The best idea Lenovo came up with is gaming -- you can play roulette or virtual air hockey on this gigantic tabletop screen.
Odd as they sound, these transformers represent the PC's best hope against the rise of tablets. Because Windows 8, Microsoft's latest operating system, is touch-enabled, laptops and desktops can now take on a variety of shapes and sizes depending on your shifting needs. I'm skeptical of such shape-shifting machines, because common sense suggests that a device that acts like two completely different things is going to be inherently more complex -- and won't work nearly as well -- as a machine that's meant to do one thing. At the same time, though, I can appreciate the lure of hybrids. When I travel, I stuff my bag with a laptop, a tablet, and a bird's nest of cables and accessories. What if we all needed only a single machine? What if every Ford Fiesta could turn into an F-150 pickup with the push of a button? You'd never need to borrow a friend's ride to pick up something at Ikea. Wouldn't that be awesome?
That would be awesome, if such a thing could possibly exist. I'm not at CES this week. As I explained in 2011, I've long shunned the show because it's an "overcrowded, overstuffed, chaotic, and profoundly pointless vaporware parade." One of my chief complaints was that manufacturers often show off devices that they aren't ready to release for sale, and that's true of many of the hybrid PCs on display this week. On Monday Intel unveiled "North Cape," a 13-inch laptop whose screen can be detached from its keyboard, creating a 13-inch tablet. All of the machine's computing guts are set behind its screen -- the keyboard piece doesn't have anything other than keys, a trackpad, and an extra battery. The Intel machine packed some amazing specs: It's got a high-definition display, it likely weighs only a couple pounds (Intel was vague), and it can last for as long as 13 hours on a single charge. (The tablet portion lasts 10 hours, and the extra battery in the keyboard dock gives it an extra three hours of life.)
But the biggest questions about the device remain unanswered. How well will a detachable machine work? Can you really squeeze a computer that's meant to run desktop-caliber programs into the size of a tablet? Will those desktop apps run very slowly? Will the machine be hobbled by an annoying cooling fan? Intel didn't shed light on these questions. As documented by Gizmodo, the Verge and Engadget, the company wouldn't tell reporters many details about the device, including its release date, selling price, or which PC brand it would carry. Intel wouldn't even let the media try it out.
Lenovo dished a few more details about its tablet-laptop transformer, the ThinkPad Helix. Like the Intel machine, Lenovo's new gizmo also carries all its computing power behind its screen, including enough processing power and memory to rival many notebooks. It looks like a solid design, but if you think about the Helix's specs, it's difficult to see how the transformer beats getting a tablet and a laptop separately. First, it's not cheap. When Lenovo's Helix goes on sale in February, it will start at $1,499. If you were to purchase an 11-inch MacBook Air and an iPad, you'd spend just a fraction more, $1,558. What's more, the Helix is not lightweight. As the Verge explains, each piece -- the tablet and keyboard -- weighs around 2 pounds each. The MacBook Air and the iPad weigh about 3.8 pounds together. The Helix's battery lasts for 10 hours (five as a stand-alone tablet, and five more with the boost from the battery inside the keyboard dock). The Air/iPad combo goes for 15 hours together.
And these specs don't take into account the primary difference between stand-alone devices and all-in-one transformers: software. When you buy a laptop and a tablet, you can be assured that each device will carry an interface that has been tuned to its physical design. Apple's iOS and Google's Android have large buttons and enormous app stores overflowing with touch-friendly programs; your PC, meanwhile, is designed to be used with a pointing device and keyboard. When you switch between the two devices, you see a stark difference in interface that makes it immediately clear how to use each device.
The hybrid machines, meanwhile, all run Windows 8, which includes a touch-friendly interface alongside the traditional Windows desktop. This means you can switch between two computing modes at the push of a button -- between a system in which you use a pointer and one in which you use your finger. But Windows' duality makes it cumbersome to learn. In adding touchability to Windows, Microsoft had to redesign some of the operating system's key functions, including the Start Menu, the file system, and how windows are arranged on the screen. Sure, many people will get the hang of these changes. But I wonder if there's a psychic benefit in having a clear separation between tablets and PCs -- if it might be easier and less frustrating to learn how to use something like an iPad and a laptop when they're on two different machines rather than a single freaky combo.
It could be that I'm judging the hybrid category too soon. Maybe in a few years' time, as processors get cheaper and more power efficient and Windows attracts more touch-friendly apps, hybrids will start to become more competitive with tablets. The trouble for Microsoft, though, is that it might not have a few years to wait. Last week the NPD Group reported that, unlike previous releases of Windows, the launch of Windows 8 didn't do anything to boost PC sales. What's more, the Windows PCs that did sell over the holidays were pretty cheap -- the average sales price was $420, which means that consumers were staying away from the high-end, touch-screen machines that manufacturers had designed for the new Windows. (Touch machines made up only 4.5 percent of Windows notebook sales, the research firm said.)
And consumers' thriftiness may be the hybrids' ultimate hurdle. Machines that can act like both PCs and tablets are always going to be more expensive than either of their specialized cousins. If a $200 or $300 tablet will allow you to do 80 percent of what you want from a computer, isn't that enough? I suspect most people will think so. If you need a truck, after all, you can always borrow one from a friend.