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Stop talking about replacements. Give PC owners something new already!

The iPhone didn't really look like something we had before, nor was it positioned as the replacement for something.

When tablet kickstands were innovation.
When tablet kickstands were innovation.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.

The marketing machine around 2-in-1s has been at full speed for a few years now. As Windows 8 was coming to market, hardware vendors, Intel and Microsoft all put their thinking caps on to see how they could take advantage of the new OS to sell new PCs.

A recap

Between the beginning of 2011 and the fall of 2012, tablet sales — in particular, iPads — were ramping up. The Windows camp was very eager to position tablets as being inferior to PCs, while acknowledging that the more mobile form factor was something Windows was embracing, and, with it, a more touch-friendly interface.

At the same time, Apple was eager to position iPads more like smartphones than PCs. Why not? Consumers were certainly buying more of the former than the latter. Around that time, we started to see 2-in-1s and hybrids surface as a label for devices that looked like a notebook but had a detachable screen that could be turned into a tablet.

Around 2012, we started to see 2-in-1s and hybrids surface as a label for devices that looked like a notebook but had a detachable screen that could be turned into a tablet.

Fast-forward two years and, at the 2014 CES, Intel started promoting notebooks that not only doubled as tablets but also ran Microsoft’s as well as Android’s operating system. Some called these "PC Plus." This attempt to make up for the shortfalls of the Windows 8 touch experience by adding Android did not really sit well with consumers, especially as most of those devices were priced much higher than any single-OS hybrid. Needless to say, by spring that endeavor was abandoned, and so was the term.

Two years later, and here we are. Windows 10 got to market, and with a redesigned UI, the focus on touch has increased. The term 2-in-1 is in full flow, and so is the animated discussion about what device would be the perfect PC replacement. Camp Windows and Camp Apple both are trying to convince users that the new tablet-plus-keyboard design is the perfect one, although each camp thinks, of course, that it has the best solution.

It is understandable that with close to one billion consumer PCs in use, the interest in wanting users to upgrade what they have is strong, as is the temptation to think in terms of replacement. I’ve pointed out in the past how consumers with old PCs are really not engaged with them as they relegated the least appealing tasks like file management (albeit, important in their eyes) to these devices.

Replacement does not scream "exciting"

I have never been a fan of the term 2-in-1, as it sounds more like a compromise than a best of both worlds. I am even less of a fan of this obsession with wanting to place a new category of devices — a tablet with a keyboard or a notebook with a detachable screen — as a replacement for a PC.

I struggle to understand why anyone would care to replace something that does not play a very important role in their life. If they did, "replacement" for me implies a like-for-like substitution, which certainly does not help the new devices. Of course, consumers expect technology to improve, and so they know that what they buy today will not be the same as what they had. Yet, if they are thinking in terms of replacement, they will not be looking to do new exciting things, they will not look to spend more time with it, they will not be proactively curious about what the combination of the new OS plus the new hardware will offer.

Two years later, and here we are. The term "2-in-1" is in full flow, and so is the animated discussion about what device — Camp Windows or Camp Apple — would be the perfect PC replacement.

Think about the different experiences you go through when you are buying, say, a comfy pair of shoes to wear at work all day, or to help you survive a trade show. The experience is very different from when you go out looking for a pair of heels. Or when your family car must be replaced, as opposed to when you are out looking for your own sports car. For the first search, reliability and quality are certainly important, but budget might be capped; versus the second search, which will see an added irrational component to it.

This is why I feel strongly that vendors should move away from positioning devices as a PC replacement. Consumers have proven they are willing to buy things that do not directly replace anything. Smartphones are the best examples. When we started to buy those, and mobile phones before them, we did not buy them to replace our home phone. Initially, it was about taking the "phone experience" out of the home. Later, it was about doing much more by adding the internet and new apps and taking the mobile computer experience out of the home.

Some of what we were doing was something we used to do on our PCs, but consumers were not thinking about it that way. We have also witnessed that, while familiarity might help in some cases, if something is compelling and easy enough to use, it will take off. The iPhone did not really look like something we had before, nor was it positioned as the replacement for something.

Vendors in the Windows ecosystem should focus on:

  • Mobility at no compromise, which goes beyond hardware to embrace cloud and software
  • Richness of apps in both repertoire and quality
  • New features that Windows 10 brings, some of which are linked to touch and pen input, which would not be familiar to older PC users, but that they more likely than not use regularly with their phones and tablets.

It is about giving consumers something new they can get excited about and, most importantly, something that will play an important role in their day to day lives.

Be smart, don’t limit your opportunity with a label

Talking about replacements is as bad as wanting to put your device in direct competition with a specific category. Because of the form factor of the 2-in-1s and the current marketing, consumers see them differently. For some consumers, 2-in-1s are a PC, for others they are a tablet and for still others, a new category in its own right.

This is why any communication about being better than a PC or better than a tablet only risks taking out a chunk of the market opportunity. There are also devices like the Surface and the iPad Pro that transcend all labels — something I will have to explore in a separate article.

Carolina Milanesi is a principal analyst at Creative Strategies Inc. She focuses on consumer tech across the board; from hardware to services she analyzes today to help predict and shape tomorrow. In her prior role as chief of research at Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, Milanesi drove thought leadership research; before that, she spent 14 years at Gartner, most recently as VP of consumer devices research and agenda manager. Reach her at @caro_milanesi.

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