Is the dream of the computing device that combines the best of touchscreen tablets and laptops now finally dead? With the most recent update to Microsoft's troubled Windows 8.1, it certainly seems that way.
What was once that operating system's major selling point – that it combined into one experience a touch interface and a traditional computer one – has been pared back. Older, more familiar ways of interacting with a mouse and keyboard have been put back in place, and even the venerable Windows start menu is set to return later this year.
It's become common wisdom that this was inevitable – that Microsoft didn't just make a mistake in execution, but that the idea of mixing interfaces was misguided from the start. Yet, though there are some convincing arguments for a strict division between touch and a mouse, there's also another option: that simply, no-one has yet gotten the hybrid device right. And just as with the tablet itself, that Microsoft introduced but Apple later perfected, we may have to wait for the folks at Cupertino to make a hybrid touch-laptop worth getting excited about.
I don't at all say this to disparage Microsoft in the usual clichéd way as a dinosaur that "just doesn't get it." To the contrary, with Office for iPad, Xbox One and more, it's clear that Microsoft is finally starting to get some things right. Instead, it's just that Apple is actually better set up for an ideal hybrid device.
A significant clue as to why this might be the coming lies in a product that is already in the public's hands: the iPhone 5S. As noted by tech expert Anand Lal Shimpi, the A7 processor that powers the 5S and new iPads is actually much more powerful than it needs to be – almost as if Apple intends for its mobile processors to soon be able to run something more demanding like, say, OS X, its full computer operating system.
That would mean that instead of clunky devices like the Microsoft Surface Pro, you might instead have a device as thin and light as the current iPad, but that could also run the full Mac software, letting you do things like multitask and run such tools as Photoshop or Excel.
If that's technically possible without the drawbacks we've seen so far, the next question is whether anyone would want a device like that – and that is more difficult to answer. The problem of any computer that mixes touch with a mouse and keyboard is that each method of input requires its own interface and is best suited to certain purposes. For example, spreadsheets are better with a mouse, while reading tends to be better on a touchscreen tablet.
More than that, though, the metaphors of the desktop and the touch device are just different. The desktop is a place where you have multiple things open and jump back and forth frequently. A touchscreen, as on a tablet or smartphone, is about the digital page – about an experience designed just for full-screen takeovers. That doesn't mean that one is for work and one for play, or one for creation and one for consumption, but it does mean that they work in a fundamentally different way.
How then could one device ever hope to address these disparities? Simply, by not attempting to combine opposing interfaces into one, but keeping them separate within the same device. Rather than the confusion of Windows 8's current mixture of touch and mouse elements in the same environments, what would make more sense is that using a tablet independently would be touch only just like an iPad, and that plugging a keyboard and mouse in would be desktop mode just like a Macbook – and never the twain shall meet. The benefit, though, would be one device for all your computing needs, without the drawbacks of tablets, laptops, or the less-than-ideal hybrids we've seen so far.
If history is any indication, Apple may be best suited to take that on, because they understand the importance of placing limits on things – on not always giving people the choice. Instead of trying to equally please touch and mouse users, an iPad Pro might simply combine the best of both interfaces – and ironically, it could do so by not combining them at all.