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Summary:

Analyst reports on PC sales are hitting the wire and they’re not good. Should this surprise? Not really when you consider how more capable and cheaper mobile devices are selling like hotcakes. The PC certainly isn’t dead, but it is dying a slow painful death.

For the first full year since 2001, personal computer sales are projected to decline in 2012. IHS iSuppli shared its data on Wednesday, saying the PC market will see 1.2 percent fewer sales this year as compared to 2011. That means the total number of PC sales will fall from 352.8 million last year to 348.7 million by year end. This shouldn’t be a surprise: the perfect storm of connectivity, hardware advances in mobile devices and more capable mobile apps are attacking PC sales on all fronts.

Emil Protalinksi at The Next Web  wonders if Windows 8 can provide a bounce to this market, and market researcher IDC was also cautiously optimistic about tepid growth in announcing Thursday poor third-quarter PC shipment results across the board.

But if there is one at all, I don’t think it will be big, nor long lasting. For better or for worse, we’re coming to — or in some cases have passed — the tipping point for mobile vs. desktop. As of late 2010, smartphone sales started surpassing those of traditional computers. And IHS iSuppli’s own forecast for tablet sales this year, which really didn’t exist in meaningful numbers until 2010, says they’ll jump 90 percent to 124 million sales, or just over 35 percent of total PC sales this year.

Some in the PC market have ignored this shift; that’s why I called the top computer companies five biggest losers in January last year. They’ve watched their sales figures erode as two things have happened: Apple has continued to buck the trend by generating Mac sales growth and computing activities are migrating away from traditional computers.

Ridiculous or reality?

Right about now, I suspect many readers are thinking, “Ludicrous! We still need PCs at work and to get specific tasks done that no smartphone or tablet can do. To say the PC is dead is simply ridiculous.” To that, I say, yes… and no. I’m not suggesting the PC is dead. I am suggesting, however, that the PC is dying and the numbers have shown all the warning signs of it getting replaced for the past few years.

More importantly, those readers still shaking my head over this thought are likely long-time PC users. There’s a whole new generation of the world’s population growing up now that uses a tablet or smartphone as their primary computing device. Don’t believe me? The numbers don’t lie: A recent survey of 7,700 teens shows that 40 percent of them have a tablet and 43 percent have an iPhone. Surely, some have PCs too, but are they primary computing devices?

I can’t extrapolate much from my own kids but it’s telling to me that they only turn to PCs in rare instances these days: To play online Flash games and occasionally for multiuser video chat. Outside of that, it’s all iPad, iPod or Android phone for games, email, and even schoolwork. I don’t think their usage patterns are outside of the norm for their generation, but again, I won’t read too much into their activities.

But that brings me back to Windows 8 and the overall PC market. Windows 8 is expected this month. Now is the time when people should be talking about it as Microsoft builds buzz. But try an experiment to see if that buzz is where it should be.

Which is owning the conversation: PCs or mobile devices?

In your circle of friends, family, co-workers and the like, tune in to their tech talk. See if they’re more excited about the possibility of an iPad mini, the latest Android phone, an Ultrabook, or a new Windows 8 device, for example. Sure, you’ll find some talking about the latter two, but I don’t think you’ll find the majority of the conversation revolving around PCs. The new mobile world order is about smartphones and tablets, not the legacy activities that require us to be attached to a laptop or desktop computer.

IBM PCOne could argue that the poor economic climate is hurting higher priced PCs as consumers and businesses choose to buy less expensive mobile devices. That’s a fair point. As the global economy heals, however, I don’t expect PC sales to rise with it. Our mobile devices are more capable than ever before and becoming more capable every day. Thank the maturity of apps, faster mobile broadband networks, use of the cloud and improved mobile chips for these and future advances.

Schools, enterprises, and consumers alike are moving on to the always-connected, do-anything-anywhere experience that smartphones and tablets provide. And as more do so, the stodgy old PC as we’ve known it for 25 or more years is getting left behind.

  1. A contributing factor is the incremental gain for a PC replacement – which is ever dwindling. Consider the year-over-year benefit of PC upgrades versus year-over-year benefits of mobile device upgrades. We’re still in the steep part of the curve for mobile devices. PCs are well out in the asymptote. My Macs are four years old now and I perceive marginal incremental value in new models – and considerably smaller incremental value/dollar. My mobile devices have not yet reached a similar year-over-year incremental increase in value.

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    1. Great point and I completely agree.

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    2. I had a MacBook 13″ Black for 5 years, it was in perfect condition. I passed the word out at work that I was thinking about getting a new one. I had them standing in line waiting to purchase mine. Had a offer of $550.00, took it and he loves it. By the way it was upgraded to 2 gig ram and 320 hard drive while I had it. If it was a pc I would have to pay $10.00 to recycle it.

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    3. Yes, agree. CPU & GPU technology had reached somewhat of a plateau about 2-3 years ago. So for the average user who has purchased a new computer since that time… the PC upgrade doesn’t seem to be as much of a “necessity” as it did in the past. Especially now since it’s not anticipated that Win8 will have any more computing demands than Win7.

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    4. Although on a different architecture – ARM seem to have the right idea by focusing of efficiency, and not just on raw GPU and CPU power.

      With Windows 8, I feel that ARM will slowly make strides into the laptop and desktop markets – especially once the compatibility issues are dealt with

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  2. Love the photo: a dot matrix printer, an old IBM 8088 with an amber or green screen.

    No wonder the author thinks PCs are “dead.”

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  3. IMHO, mobile devices will not eclipse the PC realm until the following conditions are met:
    a. Data costs are reduced – usage limits less restricted (or until someone finds a cheaper way to support it)
    b. User input – keyboard is king. Most real creative work (not just casual consumption of the device) requires more than a few taps or gestures. We need a way to interact with the device that is comparable in speed and accuracy to a physical keyboard (there are bluetooth cases of sorts and accessories of course)
    c. Mobile devices need to be more competitively priced to your typical consumer PC – considering most mobile devices do less than your average PC is capable of

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    1. a. I have no idea what that sentence means.
      b. All tablets made (so far) can be used with keyboards, even iPads, and it’s tiring that people think that tablets with a keyboard didn’t exist before Windows 8. (Actually, I’m not sure if Kindles or Nooks can be used with a keyboard but I’d be surprised if they couldn’t.)
      c. Many mobile devices are priced quite competitively, IMO. A seriously decent PC starts at $1,000 and tablets max out well below that.

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  4. Don’t forget the advent of $35 computers, like the Raspberry Pi.

    The Raspberry Pi is quite usable right now, and may become the standard for cheap computing in a couple of years.

    How can the old PC with Windows compete with a $35 device?

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  5. TabTop http://bit.ly/RgKObF My 7″ tablet connected to a 24″ monitor, keyboard, mouse, and sound system – it’s a little slow, but a fun experiment.

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    1. Nice! I do the same with a Chromebook now but used to do this with a 7-inch UMPC back in the day. :)

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    2. I have a PC (actually a Mac) AND iPad and iPhone, and no plans to not have a desktop machine – or at least a laptop – in the foreseeable future.

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    3. No need for hardware that just sits at my desk or weights 3-7 pounds to lug around. My Galaxy Nexus connects to my 50 inch TV via MHL and to a bluetooth keyboard/mouse and serves as a capable “PC”. I don’t see a need for a PC … except to convert DVDs to mobile format. Heck, in a couple years I won’t even remember what DVDs are!

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  6. I have seen article after article which talks about the reduction n PC sales, and everybody jumps on the rise of mobile devices. However, I have a PC (actually a Mac) AND iPad and iPhone, and no plans to not have a desktop machine – or at least a laptop – in the foreseeable future.

    But the bulk of PC purchases is in the enterprise, and few enterprises are replacing laptops and desktops with mobile devices except is specialty applications such as drivers and field workers. As with me, mobile devices *augment* the PC. But there’s another factor nobody is talking about, yet which has a massive effect on hardware sales – virtualization. In the company I worked in until last year, we were buying fewer and fewer sets of hardware, and running more and more virtual machines. The QA department ran hundreds of VMs every night on a small number of servers; engineers each ran multiple machines on a single server. IT was discovering that most workers don’t need a server at their desk; VMs on the network (call it a local “cloud”) can provide anything they need which can’t be done on a laptop.

    PCs have long been far more powerful than needed for what they were used for. And laptops are far more powerful than necessary for what they’re used for. We may well return to the old mainframe models, only with individual VMs in a cloud and smart, rather than dumb, terminals to access them. I think this is going to prove to be the final factor relegating the PC as we know it today to a small-volume specialty device.

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  7. First ,all are PCs,second ,blaming new form factors for the decline in traditional PCs is a very narrow view..
    And not that it matters but Mac sales are down too,there a couple major PC makers growing but that’s besides the point.

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  8. These kinds of stupid articles about stupid subjects make me wish the world of “Revolution” would come true.

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  9. i-pads, android, and i-phone are killing the computer industry. just ask the wise students of India and they get excited when you mention Samsung Galaxy 3 or the Apple I-phone 5. In less than (5) years computers for the (home) will be practicably non-existent due too the new i-pods and i-phones. just look at cyber trends in the last five years.

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  10. Prefer my desktop. Will never own a smart phone.

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  11. These mobile devices may have their place but the thought of working on a spreadsheet on a 7 or 9 inch screen is ridiculous and totally out of the question on a smartphone. If all you do is text your friends, watch youtube videos, and play games, the new devices might fit your needs. For those of us who use a PC for work and have 4, 5, 6, or more applications open at the same time, even a large tablet is out of the question. I suspect some of the decline is for the same reason I have not purchased a new computer lately — I don’t need to. My old computers work just fine and run all of the latest versions of software that I use. USB 3.0 is no reason to scrap my current computers and buy new ones.

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  12. I can manage a laptop ok, but anything with a smaller screen is out. Remember you too will someday discover just as we Depression and war baby generation folks are now, it’s hard to read that tiny print. Getting old doesn’t fry our brains or make us less willing to try new stuff, but we won’t buy what we can’t use.

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    1. I hear that, Linda. I’m just outside of the Baby Boomer group and had to move to bifocals early this year. Maybe that’s why I keep buying phones with larger screens every year. In 2011 it was the 4.65-inch Galaxy Nexus and now it’s the 5.5-inch Galaxy Note 2! ;)

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  13. I don’t get the point. In a few years we wont’ be talking about PCs vs Tablets vs Phone vs Laptops vs Netbooks. We will be talking about brands, OS screen size, input methods and features. Since when is a tablet not a personal computer? Yes sure they currently run on phone OSes but that’s only due to limitations in the hardware. Very soon they will converge completely.

    I build web apps, I build for screen size, browser and input method (keyboard, thumb, finger tip). The large screen is not going anywhere, whether it be connected to a tower, laptop, tablet or phone.

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  14. PCs will decline somewhat, but that’s because many users don’t need a pc view content. Tablets are simply another tool for viewing content; extremely ineffective for creating or modifying content. For those of us that actually create complex content and required multitasking and multithreaded performance, the PC is the most effective choice.

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