Intel Bets On Surface Pro 3-Like “2-In-1” Devices

Today at the Computex event in Taiwan, Intel unveiled a reference design ‘2-in-1’ device, raising the profile of tablet-hybrids. The chip maker, increasingly betting on mobile in the face of a immiserated personal computer market, wants to grow its market share in the tablet industry.

The idea of a ‘2-in-1’ — hereafter called 2-1 — is simple: Have a tablet that locks into a keyboard natively, allowing for both touch-first, and keyboard-first experiences. Microsoft has been a long promoter of the concept, sinking billions of dollars into its Surface project.

Most recently, Microsoft released the Surface Pro 3, a device that advanced the concept of a tablet-hybrid, a term I made up to cover devices that attempt both best-in-class tablet and laptop experiences without meaningful sacrifice. The Pro 3, among other useful changes, improved its keyboard and touch-pad, making it a far more viable laptop replacement.

Intel, a company that is presumably loath to watch the PC market decline, is making a bet that it can advance its tablet efforts and juice PC sales at the same time. Its reference 2-1 design is an attractive device, both thin and light. The company provided TechCrunch with two reference images:

Tablet mode:

reference 1

Attached to keyboard:

reference 2

Not bad.

Intel of course won’t be making the device itself. OEM partners will build devices that conform to its general specifications. According to a note from Intel, devices “based on” the reference design will be announced over the next few months.

The design’s specs appear impressive: Its tablet by itself is thinner than the MacBook Air, and it weighs less than the Surface Pro 3 while sporting a 12.5 inch display. We’ll have to wait on what OEMs will charge for machines based on the design, but the bones are attractive.

Think of the 2-1 reference design as something akin to a generational evolution of the Ultrabook, Intel’s alternative to the popular MacBook Air. The new reference design will face the same challenges as Microsoft’s Surface effort: Can the inherent design tradeoffs that come with a detachable keyboard be overcome by the benefits such an arrangement can bring?

2-1 devices compete with not only tablets, but touch-capable laptops as well, making their in-the-middle status quite the straddle. But, provided that Intel has learned from Microsoft’s early efforts — we’ll need hands on time with reference design-based devices before we can fully vet what Intel has concocted — it could nudge the PC market in a new direction. If Intel can make tablet running on x86 chips more popular, it would help both it and Microsoft.

It’s worth revisiting the PC market, given that it appears that we are entering into a new normal. The current PC market is expected, for the next few years, level out around 300 million units per year. A large, if reduced figure.

The tablet market, as tracked by IDC including 2-1 devices, is seeing its growth rapidly slow. So the space that Intel is looking to grow into is slowing its expansion. But options for Intel in the computing space aren’t that diverse, so to see it pursue the area isn’t surprising.

Intel is keen to get onboard the touch train, even though its has so far lagged the market. The company is cognizant of its current deficit, but, as I learned speaking to several of its PC and mobile-facing executives, is a bit more determined to grow its share than chew over the past.

Intel shipped around 5 million tablet processors in the first quarter, and is on track to ship 7.5 million in the current quarter, marking growth of around 50% on a sequential quarter basis. Intel is pursuing both tablets that run Windows and Android, of course, meaning that the long WinTel alliance is now as post-pc as the rest of the computing market.

At CES this year the company did explore the wearable space, but it remains unclear precisely what the Internet of Things is, if anything, why smartwatches should come with Intel Inside, or why we need a smart bowl.

The key takeaway from the above is that the intersection of touch and type is a place where the incumbent PC powers smell blood. If consumers agree is the new question.