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Summary:

Naysayers may continue to ignore the trend, but tablets aren’t toys and the tablet market isn’t a fad, as 2012 shipments show. This year, tablets could surpass both desktops and laptops.

lots of tablets

So it turns out this tablet market isn’t quite a fad after all. Research firm IDC has numbers to prove it, publishing on Thursday the reported 2012 shipment figures for smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktops. It won’t surprise you that smartphones continue to be the tops among these devices, but it may surprise you that tablet shipments have nearly caught up with those of desktops.

I was joking about the tablet “fad” of course; I’ve been sharing details of the fast-growing tablet trend for some time. Over a year ago, I explained in a GigaOm Pro report why the “PC” you buy in three years won’t be a PC, but instead will likely be a tablet (subscription required).

The numbers are in

To be fair, desktops are the dinosaurs of the PC industry as laptops first enabled mobility that smartphones later extended. So maybe the fact that only 20.1 million more desktops than tablets shipped in 2012 doesn’t impress you. Instead, take a look at the laptop market, where tablet shipments approached 63.5 percent of laptop shipments last year.

IDC Connected Devices 2012

Think about that for a second. The consumer tablet market arguably started with Apple’s iPad in 2010. And in three years, the market is nearly equal that of desktops and is on track to surpass laptops possibly this year. All it would take is the roughly the same rate of growth for both tablets and laptops.

That’s not an unreasonable assumption and if it holds true, 229 million tablets would hit the market in 2013 while the laptop market would shrink to just under 200 million units.

What’s different? Everything.

Why is this market changing? Again, one need only look to the past to see the future. I said this last March when discussing how tablets could outsell PCs in 2013:

“Mobile devices are enabling new economies, opportunities and functions we couldn’t envision just a handful of years ago. Ignore this trend and you’re sure to think there’s no way tablets could ever outsell PCs, let alone do so within the next two years. Look at the next generation embracing tablets, however, and you start to see that the idea isn’t so far-fetched after all.”

With new application stores selling touch-optimized software on lightweight but capable hardware, tablets — and smartphones to an equal degree — are disrupting the traditional computing markets along with our ideas of what “computing” actually is. Full-featured legacy apps and devices will be around for years yet, but mobile apps are breaking features into bite-sized chunks of instant functionality at the tips of your fingers.

An alternative view of this disruption is to suggest that the PC and tablet market don’t really compete against each other. That sounds reasonable on the surface. After all, if there are tasks you need to complete requiring a desktop or a laptop, you’re likely to use one of those. But three points come to mind with that way of thinking.

Three reasons the trend will continue

First, many consumers and enterprises see tablets as more than just the toys that some dismissed them as in 2010. That’s evident by the actual figures of shipments and to a degree, sales. How often do you see a particular laptop or desktop that’s sold out or has a several week wait before delivery? Now consider the same for tablets: short supply for them could be related to production issues, of course, but strong demand is part of the equation as well.

Second, I’m seeing more and more instances of people hanging on to their older computers longer. That’s just anecdotal of course; I don’t have a massive sample size to work with. Don’t take my word for it, though. Check with your family and friends and see if the trend holds: Potential tablet purchases are likely to outweigh PC acquisitions.

Microsoft Surface ProLast, you can see the industry reaction to the tablet market. It’s undeniable; look at WinTel: Intel is working feverishly on getting its chips to work with mobile operating systems while also reducing the power draw. Microsoft’s Surface products? They’re Redmond’s answer to the tablet market with Surface RT trying to offer a best of both worlds between tablets and traditional desktop software such as Microsoft Office.

Again — because I know I’ll get the “PCs aren’t going anywhere” responses — the traditional PC will be around for years yet. Some computing activities just aren’t suited to the capabilities of tablet. But the problem for PC makers, Microsoft and others that figured their market was secure for ages is that the disruption already happened. Reacting now is too late because the market has already shifted in a new direction. It’s only just now that the evidence really shows the PC market won’t have a chair to sit in when the music stops playing.

  1. Kevin,
    What do you think of Win 8 based convertables, hybrids? As the prices are falling quickly($500-$800), do you think consumers opt for a 2 in 1 device(i.e. a PC and a tablet function).. ?

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  2. To add to your anecdotal evidence I am an it professional and I used to update my desktop pc every year at home. My desktop would be given to my wife and her desktop would replace the oldest pc acting as a file server. The thing is, even a slow desktop is adequate for the sorts of things we do at home. My last desktop upgrade was in 2011, and I bought a new Mac mini. Last year instead of a pc, I bought an iPad. This year, I updated my iPhone to an iPhone 5, but didn’t want to be tied to a 2 year plan so I bought it at full cost. NZ$1200 so that was my pc purchase 8). I use the pad and phone every day, but they can’t do everything. They can’t rip a DVD or run a media server, or be used for desktop publishing.
    PCs aren’t dinosaurs, they are trucks. They will still be used where you need a 24 inch screen, and large compute resources and terabytes of local storage, but the tablets are the two seat coupes that can be used every day, but you aren’t going to use it to bring home a piano. Smartphones are the scooters, take it any where for quick and easy access.

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    1. Nice analogy.

      Microsoft’s hardware design seems on the right track here – with the right keyboard I’d buy a tablet over a laptop. But it’s still hilarious to watch people trying to type on a tablet, especially in meetings, where it appears that 60%+ of their mental focus is dedicated to hitting the right keys (leaving 25% for their coffee and snacks, and 15% for productive meeting participation).

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    2. Tom The Nerf Herder Thursday, February 21, 2013

      I like that comparison.
      Desktops are the GMC Sierra.
      Laptops are the Mazda Miadas
      Tablets are the Harleys and Kawasakis.
      Smartphones are the Vespas.

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    3. What happens when the table becomes the “truck”? I can see tablets becoming a workhorse when connected to a workstation. Imagine Connecting to airplay to your monitor or television and using auxiliary perephrials for input.

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  3. Reblogged this on Tim Chambers and commented:
    The latest research surfacing here of an inexorable trend.

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  4. Tom The Nerf Herder Thursday, February 21, 2013

    I’m acutally a desktop re-convert.

    About 6 months ago, my desktop died a horrible death, so I bought a fairly high end laptop, thinking that it could replace my desktop for gaming.

    Boy was I wrong: the video card on that laptop – and in fact, any video card available on any laptop – is just not powerful enough for the latest generation of video games.

    So back to the desktop I went… and I don’t miss the laptop. I have 2 large monitors on my desk, along with a nice sound system. Yes, I can plug monitors in to the laptop, but after messing with monitor cables and USB cables, I end up with a laptop that takes up just as much space as a desktop.

    And don’t get me started on what it would take to replace my i7 GeForce equipped desktop system with a tablet. They literally don’t make tablets with that kind of power.

    So I don’t think laptops OR desktops are going anywhere any time soon. Some people can and will eliminate their PC’s in favor of tablets, but I think that for anyone who does real computing – either for play or work – will still need a real computer.

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  5. What does count for number of desktops? Are those only brand name ones?

    For example, in my country only large businesses are possible buyers of brand name desktops, huge majority are desktops that are assembled in local store from parts that are bought separately, and I believe this is the case everywhere outside western developed countries.

    So if those numbers aren’t taken into account, desktop market is probably much bigger.

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  6. There are not many computing tasks that can’t in theory be done with a tablet or other thin client device.

    Content creators could easily render their graphics in the cloud. Even 3D animations could be rendered in the cloud (and that’s probably the most computer intensive task imaginable).

    Video editing might be the last remaining task for a traditional PC or Mac. But it’s possible for that to go to the cloud as well, though that would also require a network based on fiber-to-the-home (FTTH). Some nations are already installing FTTH countrywide. It’s coming. Then you can easily move broadcast quality video around.

    Most corporate office buildings are full of PCs that are being used for mundane tasks like word processing or simple number crunching. All that will move to the cloud. Most offices will rid themselves of PCs as cloud applications mature.

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    1. You *could* render the graphics in the cloud, but you still need a decent set up with horsepower and screen real estate to actually BUILD the scenes to render.

      Same goes for the development side. These things just can’t be done without having a good PC setup to develop on.

      Take it from a content creator, who works in this field :)

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  7. I always find that articles like this always miss an important point.

    They’re only from the point of view of the ‘consumers’ – People who use the apps for their daily lives, and not from the people that actually BUILD the software that you use.

    The app developers, game developers, content creators require horsepower and a decent setup to create all this. Something that can’t be done on a 10″ (or 7″!) screen.

    For this you need these ‘dinosaur’ PC set ups (in their various flavours), so that people like me can give you all this goodness! :)

    Dinosaurs indeed. Harumph!

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  8. Tablets are replacing pcs as communication and media consumption devices. Pcs were overkill for this purpose. And much clumsier for those uses.

    An iPad isn’t going to be the computer to use anytime soon for professional Photoshop or AutoCad or video editing etc as those tasks will benefit from all the processing power they can get for the foreseeable future.

    But at the same time as the iPad gains processing power it will gain the ability to do more tasks a pc was needed for. Even then some of those tasks will seriously benefit from a larger screen, better text input and a precision input device.

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  9. with the following years …people will be use to wear big pocket jeans,jacket n everthing else which help them to put their big tablets into them

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  10. Just bought a brand new laptop with all the goodies. Here I am back on my tablet because it feels like i get more done. Just saying….

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