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Forget laptops, but don’t fall for tablets: Hybrids are the future of computing

Convertible tablet laptopsTablets are the new darling of consumer technology. The burst of fanfare generated by the iPad’s initial release never faded, nor have sales. According to IDC, 27.8 million tablets were sold worldwide in the third quarter of 2012. Though still short of the 87.5 million PCs sold during the same period, tablets have only been serious competitors for a few years. Their rate of growth is impressive and seem unlikely to slow.

Dramatic success has encouraged definitive proclamations from industry prophets. The PC is dead – long live the tablet! Recent sales figures seem to back up these arguments – but a challenger approaches. Hybrids, a category so small that its sales are not individually tracked, is the real heir to the PC’s throne. Here’s why.

Why do tablets sell?

Before we talk about why hybrids will rule, we must first understand why tablets have become so successful. Hybrids will be forever pushed to the margins if they can’t match or exceed tablets in these areas:

Touch – Let’s start with the obvious. Touch. There’s a beautiful simplicity to the direct physical interaction that tablets offer. Content consumption is more intuitive and more intimate with a hand-held touchscreen device. Productivity is more difficult, but consumers aren’t using a personal device for productivity most of the time. Tablets are also well designed for touch because they are thin, light, and small – traits that touchscreen PCs of all stripes have yet to match. 

Portability – Portability is also important, though not for the reasons most guess. Consumers want portable devices for use at home, not for travel. Laptops proved more popular than desktops because they didn’t tie the user to a desk and instead allowed use wherever a person could sit for a few hours at a time. Tablets take that a step further by offering days of use from anywhere before the battery must be charged.

Price – And let’s not forget the price. Cheap stuff sells more than expensive stuff, and tablets are among the most affordable consumer electronics devices on the market today. Even the iPad costs no more than mid-range laptops, and some Android tablets can be had for $200 or less. Anyone looking for a PC in that price range will be forced to purchase a Chromebook.

Hybrids aren’t great tablets, but they can be

All of the current hybrid and convertible laptops on the market fail in the important areas mentioned above. They are bulkier than tablets, they fall short in endurance, and they are much, much more expensive. Models with the ho-hum Atom processor sell for between $499 and $750, and most products with Core processors are sold for $1,000 or more.

With these problems holding them back, hybrids will never overcome tablets. Fortunately, they’re all solvable. As the processors available become more efficient and more powerful, hybrids will inevitably become just as thin and light as tablets. Intel’s hybrid reference unit shown at CES 2013 was as thin as some stand-alone tablets – and it was running a Core processor. Devices built on the upcoming Atom quad-cores will be even thinner.

These same improvements will also close the gap in battery life. Large hybrids with 11.6-inch to 13.3-inch screens will probably overtake 7-inch to 10-inch tablets because they have more internal space to dedicate to a battery. A similar distinction already exists in both the tablet and smartphone markets. Big screens are usually compensated for by much larger batteries. 

And then there’s price. While certain high-end hybrids will no doubt remain expensive, low-end models will surely become more affordable as the technology they rely on becomes less expensive. Solid state memory, touchscreens and processors are areas where hybrids could see substantial savings in the future. A capable $500 hybrid is not a dream. It’s inevitable.

Once hybrids are as capable and affordable as tablets consumers will no doubt begin to wonder why they’d want a tablet instead. The main distinction between them will be the docking capability a tablet lacks – in all other respects, they will become identical. Consumers (particularly those on a budget, which is most) will realize that a hybrid offers more value.

A pair of wild cards

While hybrids seem likely to take consumer electronics by storm at some point in the future, there two more notable problems that will need to be fixed. These problems could delay hybrids because, unlike hardware, the companies that could conjure solutions sometimes have a problem with execution.

No operating system is currently capable of doing the hybrid justice. Windows 8 is a step forward, yet also deeply flawed. A few hybrids ship with Android instead, which is even worse. Consumers won’t accept hybrids until an appropriate operating system is available. 

Another obstacle may be the manufacturers themselves. Imagine that you’re the CEO of a major electronics manufacturer and you’ve learned of a device that could replace two or three of your products but sells for half their combined price. Does that sound like good news? Of course not. Manufacturers may have their vision clouded by potential red ink, but designing the proper hybrids will require a committed effort, not a half-hearted attempt from companies petrified by profit margins. 

Then again, the winds of fortune may blow in the hybrid’s favor. Apple might replace its entire MacBook line with a new hybrid device, or Google could turn Chrome OS into a truly capable do-it-all operating system. Either would give these fledgling devices a boost.

One hybrid to rule them all

Hybrids are a step towards a vision of future computing that replaces the PC with a dockable device that connects to a wide variety of peripherals. Future consumers will forgo a wide range of partially redundant devices in favor of a master computer that can do almost everything.

Most enthusiasts dreaming of this future peg the smartphone as the heir to the PC’s throne. This theory is interesting, yet unrealistic. How can a powerful processor and sufficient battery be crammed into such a small space? How can a user fully enjoy a device with such a small screen? There are no easy answers to these questions – which may be why Samsung’s Galaxy Note II has become popular despite jokes about the junk in its trunk.

The future of computing will be a story of convergence, not divergence. Multiple devices will fuse into a single master computer. This will not be tablets or smartphones, which are incapable of replacing modern PCs – hybrids will rise to take on this new role. The tablet will remain, but it will be pushed into low-cost markets or sold as an add-on to a computing ecosystem built around the hybrid. Viva la hybrid!