The public flocked to the IFA Trade Show last week, Europe's oldest and largest electronic exhibition. Held in the sprawling compound of Messe Berlin, the show bustled with over 14,000 exhibitors displaying the latest gadgets from all over the world. Locals and tourists alike roamed the halls taking in the wealth of high-end TVs, loudspeakers, smart cooking appliances, and mobile devices. There was even a beer garden with Bavarian beer and sausages to help visitors start Oktoberfest early. Yet, despite all of this, one attraction reigned over all the others: the slew of portable devices from big name giants like Dell and Microsoft who are trying to retake the computer-making game.
The devices weren't laptops or tablets, but a new breed: the hybrid. These combine two very different types of computer products into one compact machine. In line with other products that were showcased, the hybrids were less of a technical revolution and more about making small advancements that cater to the customer's needs. The tech industry today revolves around finding the missing gaps and then getting one's foot in the door.
Here, the companies are responding to a specific problem in the culture of personal devices. There are two main devices that people currently use: the laptop and the tablet. A tablet (for example, the iPad) is great for reading on a park bench, browsing the headlines on the train, or watching a family video. But, if you want to get some work done or even write a long email your best bet would be using a laptop. On a tablet, users navigate by tapping, swiping, or dragging their fingers across the screen, which is intuitive. However, typing away on the virtual keyboard that pops up on the screen is annoying, at the least. In contrast, laptops aren't sensitive to touch, and instead, users control it by moving an arrow with a mouse or a track pad.
Most people alternate between the two, but a device that can bridge both formats would be extremely useful, a digital Swiss army knife of sorts. So computer companies, like Microsoft, Assus, Samsung, and Dell, are in a race to create the 'one device to rule them all.' This year Microsoft released two new operating systems, Windows 8 and Windows RT. Both systems have a laptop and a tablet component and can switch between the two. Using them on a standard laptop or tablet might make you want to pull your hair out, but these systems are really made for hybrids.
In order to support both formats, hybrids need to be the transformers of the computing world, physically converting with ease from laptop to tablet shape. The designs of the hybrids came in all shapes, with some intricate and even outlandish transition mechanisms. Most of them made the screen do acrobatic maneuvers. Prime examples are slide-and-flip hinges that allow you placement of the screen in different positions over the keyboard, a pivot joint to rotate the screen, and a model that looks like the screen is caught in a frame that is meant to train astronauts. Others had a simple clip-on keyboard or height-adjustable supports. When any of these screens are detached, they become a standard tablet. The companies are experimenting with their designs, trying to push forward a new wave of tech culture.
Even though these devices may first attract people with their novelty, the complexity could be a turnoff. Culture seems to go for sleek design, and in that, Apple is king. We can only wait to see how this will play out for the hybrids.