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Uh-oh, PC: Half of computing device sales are mobile

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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(s aapl) 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(s goog) devices are all mobile devices, not traditional computers.

Here’s another telling datapoint showing the big picture: According to a recent Gartner (s it) 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(s armh) 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(s amzn) now offers 750 hours a month of free Windows Server instances through its EC2 product line, for example.

lots of tabletsOne 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(s intc) 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.

24 Responses to “Uh-oh, PC: Half of computing device sales are mobile”

  1. As you mentioned, solutions that provide access to Windows applications from mobile devices can help fuel the trend of such devices replacing traditional PCs and laptops.

    Ericom AccessNow, a pure HTML5 RDP client that enables users of iPad/iPhone/Android devices to connect to any RDP host, including Terminal Server (RDS Session Host), physical desktops or VDI virtual desktops – and run their applications and desktops in a browser.

    Ericom‘s AccessNow does not require Java, Flash, Silverlight, ActiveX, or any other underlying technology to be installed on end-user devices – an HTML5 browser is all that is required.

    You can choose to run a full Windows desktop or just a specific Windows app, and that desktop or Windows app will appear within a browser tab.

    For more info, and to download a demo, visit:

    Note: I work for Ericom

  2. Andre Goulet

    It would be interesting to dock my iPad to my 26″ monitor and bluetooth keyboard and see if I can really replace my Mac Pro for most of what I do. I think the iPad works great as a computer, it’s just input and screen that make me want to go back to my desktop. Other than major video editing, the iPad would actually work 100 percent for everything else I do. I think. Hmmm…

    • Exactly. It’s about the software and the user interface. People don’t actually care about the hardware. It’s just a matter of time before you can drop your mobile device near a screen and keyboard. Pure device manufacturers will be pushed to commodity. Who’s going to control the ecosystems and rake in most of the profit. Amazon, Apple, etc. are just starting to experiment with using large server farms to offload some of the processing. What will this look like in 5 years, 10 years?

      It’s still up for grabs but who has sustainable business models. It would be interesting to see other statistics like % profit as in the following link. Unit sales don’t tell the whole story.

  3. I will agree that mobile devices are indeed taking some of the market share from PC. There are by far more casual surfers over the hardcore or professional’s who require high end laptops/desktops. Even if you are a profession, a mobile device such as a tablet provides quick access to notes, project information, remote desktops, email and the like without being cumbersome. Also as you said PC’s are far from dead. Mobile devices just aren’t refined enough to take their place yet if ever.

  4. All these prognostications about the death of the PC ignore that fact that almost every single worker in the industrialized word spends 40+ hours a week siting at a desk with working on a PC/Mac/whatever. All day, every day. Just because people are buying phones and tablets does’t change this fundamental fact, that most time spend on a computer will be work related and probably on a PC-ish device.

  5. knowNothing

    Hmmm… this week at BestBuy $380 for Core i3 laptop (15.6″ screen) or $400 for a 10″ tablet? Rememebr, the laptop can do everything that a tablet can, plus much, much more. Tablet, especially without outrageous 3G data plan is nothing but a glorified toy that can play youtube videos and porn. And, that’s sufficient for most of the computer users.

    Where I absolutely disagree is that tables are “cheaper starting investment” and that 24 months of $30+ monthly fees are somehow “more manageable than spending $700 to $1000 or more at one time.” First, BestBuy and others offers 18 months of 0% financing. What, bad credit? Wireless carriers also check for bad credit. So, you won’t get a subsidized ($700 vs $200) wireless device with bad credit either.
    As far as “cheaper starting investment” – a very nice and powerful laptop cost LESS than a tablet. Without 3G. And the one that’s not even called i-whatever.

  6. Jeff Kibuule

    Even the $100 Android phone counts in this graph, but based on the latest web browsing statistics, Mobile Safari far outweighs Android browser marketshare. If a device isn’t connected to the Internet, then I really don’t count it in this modern world of devices.

    • Omg, I can smell the sounding of irrelevancy to the original argument fueled by jealousness of a fanboi.

      First it was the touch. Then the number of apps… then the quality, and now it’sbrowser share. Oh boy, oh boy….

  7. I have a laptop I use for work and when I’m home I prefer to plug it to a large flat screen monitor using HDMI and now I have two screens to use. So my laptop becomes my PC when at home. I don’t foresee any need in the future for a non-mobile PC since this arrangement works so well.

  8. General Zod

    I think PC’s will still have their place. It’s not always about the power of the device. Sometimes you just want to surf the net (or compute) on a decently sized screen. I think mobile devices enhance the internet, but I think there will always be demand for devices with full sized screens.

    • Wallace Webster

      I have a smartphone, a laptop, and a desktop pc with a 27″ monitor. Unless I’m not at home, I prefer the desktop because I don’t have to strain my eyes after hours of use. I don’t see myself switching to cloud computing or purely mobile devices anytime soon because of the lack of any viewing devices which fulfill my needs. When they develop a comfortable rig I can wear which projects a 72″ screen and doesn’t give me eyestrain then I may switch to purely mobile devices.

    • James Ng

      How so? iPhone and iPad are more like that – the user cannot do anything without Apple permission. With PC, you have the freedom to do whatever, include trash the system.

  9. Forrest MacGregor

    No one ever expected Dick Tracy’s TV wristwatch to show big screen TV shows. Small form factors like the iPod touch and iPhone tradeoff superpowers for some minor constraints. design is like that. that’s why an axe isn’t a surgical instrument, even though it can cut flsh and bone. it’s suboptimal. the thing that characterizes the pre-industrial age from the info age is mobility. mmobile repositories of our info-centric lifestyle are bound to appeal to this defining characteristic. as the computational and storage burden shifts to the cloud, the desktop will become mostly I/O and display and will need fewer hardware updates to remain viable for much longer periods of time. this dynamic seems to suggest that future PC sales will fall, and future mobile sales will continue their rise with fragmentation into smaller niches present. soon, the environment will be full of ubiquitous computing, and our mobile devices will be access devices for the world as we navigate it and influence it. that’s my take, anyway.

  10. Carlton Collins

    I have purchased several smartphones and a tablet in the past 3 years, but I am still using my PC as my primary work device. Just because I buy these other devices doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned, or will abdandon my desktop computer. For it me, it simply means I am using more technologies simultaneously.

    • Carlton, I totally understand that situation. I’m pointing out a gradual transition that some folks will make quickly, some may take more time and some may not accept at all. It very much depends on your computing needs and requirements. Thanks!

      • Mark Covington

        I second Carlton. I love using my iPad and iPhone, they’re great mobile devices, but my productivity is infinitely higher with a mouse and a real keyboard. Sure as a home consumer entertainment device an iPad could replace a netbook, but as soon as you want to type a long email or use two apps simultaneously the frustrating limitations loom large. Smartphones and tablets are cheaper, smarter and far more available than they were 10years ago. I wonder what your graph would look like if it included dumb phones too. Is the corresponding increase in iPhone purchases mirrored by a drop in dumb phones? Sure PC sales have slumped, but I don’t think the causation is as strong as your graph implies. iOS and Android are very imperfect substitutes for a full OS.
        Minor nitpick in your article…3-D gaming from the cloud / home computer? LogMeIn and other VNC apps may be a good service, but it’s nowhere near good enough to play even an old computer game like Half-Life.

  11. @Kevin,

    I not only think that you’re spot on with your assessment of the impact handheld mobile computing is having on the desktop & laptop markets, I’ll add that you’ve directly supported my argument dating back to the early 90’s that most users did NOT need the computing capabilities offered by desktop (& eventually laptop) computing. Most of the offerings by the manufacturers and Microsoft offered an overwhelming amount of hardware & software bloat to justify unnecessary price gauging. When you fast forward to today’s handheld smartphones and tablets, and you apply the logic of Moore’s law, you realize that most users don’t need raw computing horsepower for web surfing, email, and status updates. Gaming and video consumption are the most demanding use that most users demand today, and those users who need raw horsepower will be the niche users. Dating back to the early 90’s, gaming and video consumption were scant and required specialized pc boards and graphics accelerators. Hence, most users would have found a desktop (& eventually laptop) that enabled them to surf the web and utilize email as sufficient devices, noting of course that many popular services today didn’t exist due to the lack of broadband.

    I suggest looking at Silicon Graphics as a microeconomic business case that illustrates the aforementioned market dynamics. As the graphics and processor capabilities that SGI was known for became ubiquitous in desktops, SGI became irrelevant. The same outcome is imminent and unavoidable for Intel’s x86 hardware platform, and Microsoft’s software office suite, they are simply bloat that most users have never needed.

    My $.02,


    • Great point, Curtis. For folks that focus on a few primary activities (web, email, mobile apps, audio/video consumption), the desktop/laptop may be too much. As our use cases change, I think purchasing options will change too. Thx!

    • tomatoTomAto

      PC’s will become more useful the more people learn to code. Coding could become so important that it be made a general education requirement in the same vein that math and social sciences are.

  12. Nicholas Paredes

    This assessment makes sense now, and anybody interested in mobile long-term, ie. looking at the Psion Netbook and seeing the future, gets the dynamics. What is missing is what is next and why.

    Computing is of course becoming a cloud activity, whatever that means. But more importantly, computing is becoming collaborative. I suggested to somebody who could affect such a future, when OSX hit the market and it became apparent that Nokia was doing nothing interesting with EPOC, that OSX could become a fantastic mobile platform. My thoughts were around the development tools rather however. NextStep had excellent tools for rapid prototyping.

    We are heading to a point where my iPhone should become my desktop on say an Apple TV. That will require collaboration across systems and device capabilities. We are seeing some of this in OSX propper with the launcher as well as in Final Cut Pro that launches in its own interface and accesses resources internally. Wintel’s problem is Win. The vision isn’t there. Android in Google has a cross-platform approach. The fact that Intel couldn’t get Meego to become what they need says more about their misunderstanding of the market forces that the slope.