More than 93.4 million personal computers shipped around the globe in the final quarter of 2010, with HP leading the pack of vendors and holding 18.8 percent of the market. Acer, Dell, Lenovo, and Toshiba rounded out the top five, combining for 58.3 percent of the overall PC market last quarter, according to research firm Gartner. Such sales numbers might be cause for celebration except for one problem: Not one of these companies has a significant presence in the even faster growing smartphone market.
Just how big is the market for pocketable computers — a market the computer industry has had a three-decade head start on? I haven’t yet seen fourth quarter smartphone sales estimates, so we can’t make a direct comparison, but Gartner’s third quarter numbers from last year show that 80.5 million smartphones were sold. That’s nearly equal to the 88.3 million computers shipped in the third quarter, just about 10 percent higher than that of smartphones.
Another startling datapoint to illustrate the challenge faced by PC makers: The up-and-coming Taiwanese company, HTC, expects to sell 60 million smartphones in 2011, which alone would rival the entire 62.7 million computers Gartner says HP sold in 2010. And of course, one can point to nearly 40 million iPhones sold by Apple in its 2010 fiscal year, or roughly three times the 13.6 million Mac computers sold during by Apple in the same period, showing that Apple has a clearer understanding that the future is mobile. Apple has devoted much effort towards iOS devices and is even bringing iOS concepts to its upcoming desktop upgrade called OS X Lion.
These sales trends have been in the works for a few years now, so it’s not surprising that smartphones are about to surpass PC sales, if they actually haven’t already. What is surprising however, is that those top five computer manufacturers aren’t even in the conversation when discussing smartphones. Sure, Dell is starting to get in the game with both Android smartphones and tablets, but it’s not a top-tier brand in either yet. Toshiba and Acer have been in and out of the smartphone game in the past, both using Microsoft Windows Mobile at the time, and that hasn’t worked out either. Acer has since tried to use Android, but its name isn’t on the tip of my tongue when talking about hot phones.
That leaves Lenovo and HP, each of which has their own potential plan to remain relevant in a mobile future. Lenovo is leveraging its home base in China, an area ripe for handset growth, even after it sold its smartphone division in 2008 and then paid double to buy it back 18 months later. But the company hasn’t yet pushed its smartphone strategy beyond the borders of China, where it faces competition from a growing number of cheap Android handsets.
Meanwhile, HP purchased Palm in April of last year for $1.2 billion to get a foot in the door for smartphones, tablets and other devices running on the Palm webOS platform. No new webOS products have come from the purchase yet, but next month, HP is holding an event where it’s expected to debut updated mobile gadgets. Even so, the webOS platform is still far behind the bigger players, such as Android and iOS, when it comes to available apps.
Ultimately, all five of these traditional computer makers are big losers when it comes to the smartphone market right now, although some still have slivers of opportunity available. The longer they cling to lower-margin desktops and laptops, however, the more they risk irrelevancy in the future. And if the comparison in device sales numbers don’t wake them up, maybe innovative accessories that turn smartphones into little laptops, such as the Motorola Atrix 4G dock shown above, will sound the warning bells.
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