We seem to have reached the stage of tablet evolution where ungainly variations are crawling out of the primordial ooze on a daily basis.
Just today, a single Engadget story covered the Sony VAIO Duo 11–a tablet that converts into a laptop via a slide-out keyboard–and the VAIO Tap 20–an 11.4 pound desktop that has its own batteries and can be used as a 20 inch tablet.
It’s almost as if manufacturers have a “Wheel of Form Factors” that they spin, seemingly at random. It’s as if they borrowed it from Hollywood (“Cowboys and Aliens! 007 and Indiana Jones! It can’t miss!”) and it looks like they’re headed for similarly disastrous results.
Since I’m old, I can remember many of the mistakes of the past. Let’s take a stroll down memory lane and see what we can learn.
Before laptops, we had luggables. These ungainly devices combined underpowered PCs with a Samsonite form factor. It wasn’t until the slimmed down Apple Powerbook and IBM ThinkPad appeared that portable computing took off.
Of course, Apple also experimented with the Powerbook Duo–an ultraportable laptop that could dock with a desktop station. The Duo was sleek and stylish, but ultimately a commercial failure. You simply couldn’t cram enough power into such a small form factor:
Before smartphones existed, there was the Qualcomm pdQ, which combined a Palm Pilot handheld computer with Sprint cellphone using the simple expedient of being really, really large:
The OQO was the Duo writ large–or perhaps that’s writ small. It crammed a full Windows PC into a form factor roughly equivalent to two modern smartphones welded together. It also cost a fortune. Not surprisingly, it was out of business by 2009.
The lessons to take away from these four ill-fated products is simple: Consumers aren’t willing to compromise in an existing product category. It doesn’t matter if it’s the best floor wax/dessert topping combo.
Computers that fit in your pocket are useful for one thing. So are tablets you can carry. So are laptops with keyboards. Just don’t try to combine the three. As Tim Cook pointed out recently, when told of the various combos being prepped by Apple’s competitors, “You could build a refrigerator/toaster combo, but I’m not sure anyone would buy it.”