2-in-1 devices face a long, slow slog to credibility

IDC forecasts a tough road for the Microsoft-Intel effort to tout hybrids

Microsoft's efforts to push the concept of a "2-in-1" device, a tablet that does double duty as a notebook, will continue to struggle, an analyst said Tuesday, citing a forecast that pegs 2016 as the first year when more than 20 million of the devices will ship from factories.

"It's safe to say that it's going slower than [Microsoft and Intel] would like," said Tom Mainelli of IDC. "But they're both in this for the long haul."

In a report Mainelli authored, IDC forecast a slow increase in unit shipments of 2-in-1s, which the research firm defined as "devices that offer an optional or an included first-party keyboard that physically connects to the tablet to create a clamshell form factor similar to a notebook."

Microsoft and Intel have both aggressively promoted hardware like that, Microsoft as a form well-suited for its hybrid Windows 8.1 operating system, Intel as a category founded on its latest generations of low-power x86 chips.

Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft has been particularly insistent on 2-in-1s, whether designing and selling its own computing hardware for the first time -- the Surface -- or touting Windows 8 as a "no compromise" OS before its launch. Early on, Microsoft executives explicitly compared the price of the Surface Pro, the model powered by Windows 8.1 and so able to run legacy software, with a one-two combination of iPad tablet and MacBook Air notebook.

It's not that those efforts have gone for naught, but IDC projections showed a tough road ahead.

The researcher estimated 2013 shipments of 2-in-1s -- not just Microsoft's poster child Surface, but also OEM products like Asus' Transformer and Lenovo's Yoga -- at 6.2 million units. About a third of those were Surface shipments.

For 2014, IDC predicted 10.3 million 2-in-1s will ship, an impressive 66% growth rate that, if considered in isolation, disguises the low volume. IDC said shipments would climb to 31.2 million in 2018. The category isn't forecast to crack 20 million units until 2016.

By comparison, Apple sold 26 million iPads in the December 2013 quarter alone.

That's not surprising, as 2-in-1s, which IDC split out for the first time this month from tablets in general, account for a very small slice of the combined shipment volume. In 2013, for instance, 2-in-1s accounted for 3% of all tablets. The category's share is expected to slowly increase until it reaches about 8% in 2018.

A "long haul," as Mainelli put it.

But he sees 2-in-1s having a shot. "Everyone is going to realize that PCs aren't going away, tablets are not a fad, and all these devices will be part of the workplace," Mainelli said. "There will be a PC refresh. And rather than a clamshell, some of those will be replaced with 2-in-1s."

One advantage 2-in-1s have in commercial scenarios is that, at least for devices running Windows and Android, they can spawn multiple windows, which are crucial to the kind of business work most associate with PCs.

IDC 2-in-1 forecast
IDC has forecast a slow slog for 2-in-1 device volume over the next five years. (Data: IDC.)
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