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Lenovo VP: Tablet-Laptop Hybrids Could Flatten iPad

Is the tablet really killing the notebook or just becoming one? It's no coincidence that Lenovo debuted two hybrids at CES. There was the head-turning IdeaPad Yoga, which doubles as a Windows 8 Ultrabook and tablet, and the Android-powered IdeaPad S2 10, which will come with an optional dock like ASUS' Transformer Prime. According to Peter Hortensius, senior vice president of Lenovo's product group, hybrids such as this one will "become a very meaningful segment in the market, and it's an area where we intend to lead".

In fact, Hortensius argues that the plain slate form factor may have already "reached its pinnacle" and that "you're just seeing people now just iterate on the innovation." (We think he means Apple.) In our in-depth interview, Hortensius also shares his thoughts on Windows 8 versus Android, the place for pen input on tablets, and why open ecosystems will triumph over closed ones.

The IdeaPad Yoga was easily one of the most talked-about products at CES. What was the thinking behind this hybrid?

Peter Hortensius: The Yoga is a good example of where we see the industry going. It's part of a vision that says that I don’t necessarily want to carry all these different things. I can use it as a tablet--it’s a pretty reasonable tablet--and I can use it as a notebook, and it’s a very good notebook. Ultrabook technology gives us the ability to create something that's thin. A thin notebook combined with that very innovative hinge and the right software, and suddenly it comes alive.

But the Yoga brings up that philosophical debate, where some say that a converged device is better, while others argue that dedicated devices are superior.

Hortensius: There obviously are some tradeoffs. A dedicated device for a specific task should be better because the engineer can jettison all the things that don’t matter for that specific task. The problem is, that’s not how anybody really does either entertainment or work or a combination. The reality is, we do lots of different things. I’m looking at a video and I want to do a quick search, or I’m looking at a video and I want to do email or I’m adjusting a presentation while looking – the reality is I’m always doing lots of different things.

Your new IdeaPad S2 Android tablet attaches to an optional dock, but the Yoga is always attached the keyboard. Which approach do you think will win out in the market?

Hortensius: There are other tablets like that as well in our product line where people can plug the slate and keyboard together and then they can separate them and carry them separately. Honestly, it’s a big debate in the industry – do people want to have it always permanently attached, or do people want to have it separable? And that’s a big debate – we’re not really trying to take sides. We’re trying to feed both sides and we’ll see over time what resonates with customers and what doesn’t.

Were your design decisions dictated by the operating systems, where Windows is more productivity-oriented and Android is more about consuming content?

Hortensius: I don’t know that we’ve broken down from that rationale, but the reality is that the S2 is designed to be a great tablet – oh, by the way, you can attach a keyboard – and on the flipside, you look at the IdeaPad Yoga, which is designed to be a great notebook – oh, by the way, I can use it as a tablet. And so it does cause you to look at it a little bit differently. It’s sort of how you make those design choices.

And when you look at the software choices, how do you see the target audiences breaking down between Windows 8 and Android tablets?

Hortensius: Windows 8 hasn’t been released yet, so it’s hard to say what the market for it is, but clearly every indication is that it will be a very strong offering on tablets and obviously because of what it is, you can create some very interesting products like Yoga. And I think you’ll see a lot of products like that, where you integrate touch and suddenly Windows becomes very relevant for that kind of user.

Android clearly comes at it from a different slant. It clearly is designed for smartphones today. That’s where it’s really strong. It’s got a reasonable presence in tablets, and we’ll see how it does if you add that clamshell capability to it. That’s to be proven. So they both have an established market where they’re coming from; they both have things where they need to prove themselves.

What are business users looking for in tablets versus consumers and how are you addressing that with ThinkPad-branded slates?

Hortensius: We think that a commercial user has commercial needs. The pen is critically important, because so much of the orientation there is markup and comment. With a finger-driven interface, it’s hard to do that. We also place a much stronger emphasis on security and the ability to manage devices, which is much more important for enterprise customers.

Do you think consumers want pen input on tablets, too?

Hortensius: You’re seeing some people experiment. Some consumer customers really like that. I’m under no illusions we’ve probably sold some of our ThinkPad tablets to the people like that, but the reality is that pen right now is largely a commercial thing for us.

Now that the Kindle Fire is ostensibly the No. 2 tablet, does that change your approach at all to the tablet market?

Hortensius: We'll have to wait for the market forecasts to really tell us where it sits, but the Fire clearly got a lot of attention. I think what it shows is that there’s still a lot of room in the tablet market for new players with new and innovative ideas and new capabilities. It shows that consumers will resonate with a value proposition. But while price is important, to me it was very encouraging because the nature and the depth of integration in the product plays very strongly to our strategy. If you look at our four-screen strategy with a cloud and integrated capability underneath it aligns to that kind of view very well.

Lenovo made some waves at CES by announcing your first TV and your first smartphone powered by an Intel chip. But that effort is largely overseas. Can you tell that four-screen story only in certain regions and be successful?

Hortensius: Well, over the long haul, our attention obviously is to bring that to where it needs to be. From our perspective, where we can launch and learn about devices the best is where we have particularly strong market share. That just happens to be China. The good news is that this is the largest market, or soon-to-be the largest market, in almost every product category you can think of. So it’s a great place to learn and to build capability.

So how would you paint your approach as different from that of Apple or Amazon. How is it fundamentally different?

Hortensius: Well, I think for one, we’re trying to be open, we’re not trying to be closed. So we will support other devices, we will adopt multiple ecosystems because we want to tailor the experience to what we think a segment of the market wants, and not take a one-size-fits-all view. That’s been our history and I think history has shown that open systems generally in the end win.

What do people want to do with tablets 2012 that they couldn't do before?

Hortensius: To me it’s an interesting question – are people doing fundamentally anything new on tablets today? Compared to what they did on PCs before – the reality is you see a lot of the tasks are very similar. I want to look at entertainment, because it offers you a way of doing it you didn’t do before. Or it’s something you could do, but it’s really kind of a pain so you didn’t. So you’ll see more of that and you’ll see more use of touch for more common tasks. But the thought that the tablet somehow replaces everything is not realistic. And likewise, the standard clamshell form factor is also going to change as people use devices that are more handheld or more comfortable, and I think it all depends on what you’re doing.

What are the big trends you see for tablets in 2012?

Hortensius: I think you’re going to continue to see a number of the incumbent players with the incumbent ecosystems continue to push their paradigm, but we’ll see how well the form factors evolve or has the tablet sort of reached its pinnacle and you’re just seeing people now just iterate on the innovation, I think that will be the big test for 2012. And I think you’re also going to see more people as notebooks change quite heavily with Ultrabook and become much more lighter and portable and longer battery life, how does that impact on the whole story? 2012-2013 is going to be very interesting. I think it’s all going to come together.

Did I just hear you say that the iPad has reached its pinnacle?

Hortensius: I think the reality is the industry is chasing the category very hard, and the reality is that the industry will invent things faster than any one player by themselves. That just makes things much more challenging for anybody.