Apple CEO slams laptop/tablet hybrids

Does Tim Cook protest too much about potential iPad rival?

When Apple CEO Tim Cook dissed the whole idea of hybrid mobile computers, he may have been showing his hand.

Cook said during a financial earnings conference call this week that consumers simply won't be interested in buying or using a machine that is a hybrid of a laptop and a tablet.

"I think...anything can be forced to converge," said Cook, according to a transcript of the call. "But the problem is that products are about trade-offs, and you begin to make trade-offs to the point where what you have left at the end of the day doesn't please anyone. You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator, but those things are probably not going to be pleasing to the user."

From there, Cook went on to fly the flag for Apple's iPad tablet and its popular, high-end lightweight laptop, the MacBook Air.

That right there, say industry analysts, tells the tale about how strong Cook and other Apple executives think the hybrid market could be. And they might have reason to want to tear down a market that has a lot of potential.

"I think it was kind of a funny slam," said Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT. "For the chief executive of a company that has pursued some pretty unconventional design points along the way and done pretty well, I'd think he'd be more open to this hybrid idea. The issue is if a successful tablet/laptop hybrid ever did come out, it would constitute a fairly significant challenge to Apple."

Laptop/tablet hybrids started to garner some attention and excitement this past winter during the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Chip maker Intel, looking to make a stronger stand in the burgeoning mobile computing market, put its might behind ultrabooks. With that push, it hopes to fire up the PC market and do battle with netbooks, tablets and the MacBook Air.

Intel and Lenovo were quick to unveil hybrid ultrabooks that can be flipped around to look and act like a tablet computer.

They're looking to hook users on a hybrid experience, combining the flexible ease-of-use of a touch-screen tablet with a full keyboarded laptop. With one machine - and one financial outlay - users get the best of both worlds.

"Apple has succeeded at keeping those types of functionality separate from one another," said King. "The idea of a hybrid is a very different kind of world view. Whenever I see an executive jump all over something... it's because it's what they fear the most or see as the biggest threat. [Cook's] comments reflect the size of the threat that he sees."

Jack Gold, an analyst with J. Gold Associates, sees potential in the hybrid market -- something that has to be sending up warning flags at Apple, which has found so much success by eating up most of the lucrative tablet market.

"So of course, the Apple CEO would like to set the impression that a convertible is not a threat to the market," Gold added.

However, not everyone thinks Cook is simply trying to throw cold water on hybrids

Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, said Cook has a lot of experience in picking hot coming trends and he simply may not appreciate the value-add of a hybrid. "Cook has passionate opinions about what consumers would want and not want and their track record speaks for itself," he said. "I don't believe he is overtly poisoning the well on hybrids, but that could be an unintended consequence.

"According to Tim Cook, if Apple doesn't sell it, consumers don't want it," Moorhead said.

He thinks the hybrids could have a bright future, one that diminishes the iPad.

"Hybrids will take business away from the iPad," he said. "Many consumers who would have purchased an iPad will instead buy a hybrid. They desire the sexiness of the tablet and the common sense of the small notebook, all in the same package."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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Sharon Gaudin

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