Last week, I pointed out some of the remote access solutions shown at CES that allow you to tap into the power of a full desktop computer from a mobile device. I said it was another nail in the coffin for traditional personal computers, which some took as me saying that the PC is dead. That’s not the case, of course, unless you look at the world solely in black and white. I don’t. For some time to come, especially in certain industries or specific use cases, the PC will be important. For most folks, however, the PC is losing relevance as we’re morphing from a local / desktop user base to one of mobile / cloud.
A rather timely graph illustrates this. Horace Dediu, who tracks market data on his Asymco blog, tweeted an image showing a “brief history of personal computing platforms” on Saturday, going back from present day to 1975. Notice anything interesting?
Starting around 2007, when Apple introduced the iPhone, sales of devices running mobile platforms have eaten into a large portion of traditional desktop and laptop sales. The sales of Apple products are lumped together in this graph, so not all of the green area is composed of iOS devices such as the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. But we know that Apple sells far more iOS devices than those that run Mac OS X: In the last quarter of 2011, Apple sold at least 28 million iOS devices, vs 4.9 million Macs. And with a few niche exceptions (Google TV and some low-end laptops) that don’t account to a meaningful number of sales, Android devices are all mobile devices, not traditional computers.
Here’s another telling datapoint showing the big picture: According to a recent Gartner news release, 352.8 million PCs were sold worldwide in 2011. To put that number in perspective, Samsung alone estimates it sold 300 million handsets and estimates it will sell 372 million in 2012; 150m of them being smartphones. While not all Samsung’s mobile devices sales are or will be smartphones, they’re all mobile devices, and most of them can tap into the web and run apps: two key activities that are shifting away from the traditional computing paradigm.
As I said last week, I’m planning to get an Asus Transformer Prime review unit (or buy one myself if I have to) to truly test if an ARM-powered mobile device can take the place of my computing needs. Note that I don’t draw CAD files, create stunning 3-D movie files, build programs or calculate equations that require heavy processing power. The fact is: Most other people don’t do these tasks either. So for many, a traditional computer can be overkill in terms of price, power and performance. And if you need 3-D graphics for gaming or some other processor intensive tasks, there’s always the option of remotely accessing a PC at home or in the cloud: Amazon now offers 750 hours a month of free Windows Server instances through its EC2 product line, for example.
One can argue the lagging economy is hurting PC sales, and I’d agree with that. But that’s not the key driver for this trend I’m illustrating. If it is, then Intel’s Ultrabooks, which are expected to cost $1,000 or more at first, won’t be too popular. And sales of $200 to $400 netbooks wouldn’t be declining over the past year or two. Sure, some folks that want to buy a PC aren’t able to spend the money right now. But that makes a smartphone or tablet even more appealing, when you see high-end handsets or capable tablets selling for much less; at least up front. Sure, there’s a recurring fee for monthly service, but it’s more manageable than spending $700 to $1000 or more at one time.
The bad economy is actually helping create a perfect storm for mobile devices. They’re a cheaper starting investment, they have connectivity to the growing number of cloud services and they meet many needs that a used to be the sole domain of a PC. Is the PC “dead”? Nope, and I never said it was. But I tend to think ahead of the curve and think of future implications rather than simply observe what’s going on today. If you live for today and must have a PC, there’s nothing wrong with that. But my future — and I think yours too — will become less reliant on the computer on your desk or lap today.