The rise of the hybrid. What’s next?

Brid-Aine Parnell

Friday 28 November 2014

Hybrid laptops are having a moment, but they won’t stay on top for long if they can’t bring down their costs and stay ahead of portable keyboard innovation and the increasing processing power of tablets.

Convergence is a key word for tech and as soon as mobile devices exploded onto the scene and the desktop sector started to shrink, it was clear that there was only one way to go – giving customers the most mobile desktop experience they could have. This is the mindset that has seen laptop and PC makers turn towards hybrid laptops.

Hybrids try to take the best of the mobile world in the form of a detachable tablet touchscreen and marry it to a base that can handle the kind of processing, memory and typing comfort required for heavier uses than just surfing the net or watching the latest box-set on Netflix. And while initial efforts may have seemed a bit like Frankenstein mishmashes that didn’t get either set of skills quite right, later efforts are proving popular.

The arrival of Windows 8 for touchscreens has helped as has the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets, making the hybrid a better fit for consumers.

“Many tablet early-adopters are considering a hybrid two-in-one product as a viable alternative to a replacement tablet,” said Gartner research director Ranjit Awal in the firm’s third quarter worldwide shipments results.

But can hybrids really last for the long haul? Experience tells us that folks want to carry around as little gadgetry as possible – music and cameras on smartphones have practically put paid to MP3 players and small digital cameras. But the trouble with hybrids is that they’re too far away from their nearest competitors in price and their key selling point – a decent keyboard – is replaceable.

It’s impossible for hybrids to compete with the cheap tablets, but even an expensive tablet that could be a viable PC replacement is going to be significantly cheaper than the current crop of hybrid options. That will change as the sector grows and processors and other components get better and cheaper. But can it get there fast enough?

Two things stand in its way – the first is that the tablet and hybrid market in developed economies is already slowing. Research analysts at IDC have nearly halved their forecasted growth rate in the sector this year to 6.5 per cent because mature markets like North America and Western Europe will see flat growth.

The second issue is the portable keyboard. Once thought of as an unnecessary accessory for tablets, future technologies like malleable hardware could see a revolution in the sector, with thin, light keyboards you can fold up and stick in your pocket. If hybrids don’t get ahead of these pressures, their time in the sun may be short-lived.