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Whoa: Tablet shipments now more than half that of the PC

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Do you consider a tablet to be a personal computer? If you do, you’ll see why the latest tablet shipment figures perfectly illustrate the current shift in computing devices: IDC estimates that 52.5 million tablets shipped in the final quarter of 2012. That compares to 89.8 million personal computers shipped during the same quarter, again courtesy of IDC.

Tablet sales are quickly growing, PC sales have been slowing

I compared the same device shipment numbers for the third quarter back in November, suggesting that nearly 1 in 4 computers sold then were tablets during that time. Of course, I was lumping tablets and PCs together for that comparison; an arguable aggregation since tablets can’t do everything a typical PC can do.

Child tween kid tablet 4G But for many, particularly consumers, today’s tablets do just enough to be the next computing purchase while those few legacy computing activities simply keep the old desktop or laptop on life support for another few years.

And in my mind, this is the challenge that PC makers are facing: How to compete with lower-priced devices that are more portable, typically run longer on a single battery charge and handle the most common computing tasks.

That’s why I’m less interested in the question of “who has the most tablet market share?” It’s still Apple(s aapl) at 43.6 percent, if you’re interested, with Samsung and Asus — thanks to the Google(s goog) Nexus 7 — growing faster than all others:

IDC tablet shipments in 2012Q4

Here’s the big story

Why don’t I care about the market share numbers between vendors? Because that’s not the bigger story. The more important point is which companies are in this chart and which companies aren’t. Three computer makers are in the top 5 while two retailers and content providers round out the list.

IBM PCMissing are the names of the long-time computer makers that either didn’t see the trend, lost their focus, are late to the game, or simply decided to pass on tablets; think Dell(s dell), HP (s hpq), Lenovo, Acer and Sony(s SNE). They missed out on the rise of smartphones, which now outsell PCs by several factors, and they’re missing out on the tablet market too, even though they’re now making some attempts at relevancy here.

Withering Windows?

This market snapshot also says something about the operating system that has held the top spot for decades: Windows.(s MSFT) Yes, there are still hundreds of millions of Windows users on the planet. There will be for years to come. But if you lump together the shipments of PCs and tablets — admittedly a stretch, but bear with me — you get a telling number: About a third of these devices don’t run Windows; they’re using iOS or Android.

Bluestacks brings Android to WindowsThat’s far different from the years of  Windows market domination at 90-plus-percent. And I see no reason why the growth of non-Windows tablets will stop. I wouldn’t be surprised by this time next year if non-Windows tablets actually outsell Windows computers.

All of a sudden, Microsoft’s presence in this overall computing market is in the minority; something the word hasn’t experienced in more than 20 years or so. Again, that’s why the vendor share in tablets isn’t the big story; there’s a bigger theme of legacy operating systems compared to newer, more nimble platforms.

Another big inflection point in the market

We can debate if a tablet should be compared to a PC all day long: Yes, you could say it’s just a different form factor and shouldn’t be considered equal to a PC. But you can’t debate two simple facts: The PC market is stagnating, if not receding, and sales of new computing form factors are growing.

It’s that simple. The definition and use case of a “personal computer” has changed, just like it did when laptops overtook desktops. And those who stuck with their old definition of computing are stuck missing out on this next wave of how people will interact with and use computers, which in this case are tablets.

8 Responses to “Whoa: Tablet shipments now more than half that of the PC”

  1. There are a number of unfortunate confusions in this.

    Firstly, the title “Tablet shipments now more than half that of the PC”. Let’s say we make this exactly half. Does this mean that tablets have one half of the PC vs tablet market, or does it mean that tablet sales are half those of PC sales, in which case tablets have one third of the tablet vs PC market, while PC’s have the other two thirds.

    I’m deliberately using the phrase “tablet vs PC market” because there are a host of devices that could be considered computing devices, so I’m (and I’m assuming you are too) restricting it to this for the sake of this discussion.

    I’m glad that you point out that “We can debate if a tablet should be compared to a PC all day long”. After all, we don’t talk much about the demise of mainframes, valve devices, or copper mesh and ferrite core RAM storage.

    Anyone saying that tablets are just another form factor is a way of saying that they *are* just another form of a PC, and *not* that they shouldn’t be considered equal to a PC. (I’m not saying whether they should or shouldn’t, just pointing out the incongruity of combining those two phrases in the same sentence as if they were saying the same thing.

    Sure, sale of tablets will increase, and correspondingly it’s likely that sales of PC’s – at least as we have traditionally understood them so far – will decline. You’re right that some people don’t need much more than what a tablet will provide – but there are some for whom this is most certainly NOT the case. You may as well say that most people don’t need large or multi-screen monitors – but some sure do.

  2. The PC market consumer market will certainly shrink some. For quite a few people PCs were never really something they could use very well… and they have struggled along for years. Tablets fit these very casual users well.

    However, the PC market (at least laptops) isn’t going anywhere. There are millions of consumers who need the vastly superior versatility and power of a laptop

  3. Another big advantage of tablets over PCs is the fact that tablets have high resolution cameras built into the back side. With any popular scanner app the tablet can be a portable scanner. Since documents can be scanned and then printed the tablet is a copier too. Many items can be immedialtely captured, formatted as PDF, stored in the cloud or emailed directly. All of this with one familar device and one investment. There is also a tablet accessory that helps improves scan productivity – ScanJig. See

  4. Microsoft’s development of the touch-first Windows 8 and Surface tablets support your argument that tablet and PC platforms have merged. Although, I doubt Microsoft’s intention is to dilute its share of the “personal computing devices” market. I suspect it is related more to utilizing its near monopoly of the PC market to entice 3rd party development of apps for the Metro interface, which hopefully will bolster Windows mobile device sales. This is a huge gamble by Microsoft, but do they have any other choice?

  5. Sceptical

    How does this IDC report even merit a serious response? How do they get the Amazon Kindle numbers when Amazon pointedly refuses to reveal them? How do they know how many tablets Samsung sold when Samsung stopped releasing unit numbers?

    Does IDC even give any kind of description to their methodology?

    Why do you buy their reports hook, line, and sinker without even questioning the validity of hocus pocus reports like this? That should be the story.

  6. John S. Wilson

    Yup, great piece. And to make matters worse, almost every price point has already been picked off by competitors. The only way forward is probably the Surface Pro which is wholly different than anything else on the market. But at that starting price it’s unlikely to move a ton of units, and even if it is successful it will more than likely cannibalize PC sales anyway. So it’s really a lose-lose scenario.

    Side note: I hope at some point IDC can start using actual sales. Shipments are really deceiving when some, like Microsoft, only sold about 60% of what they shipped.

  7. “Dell, HP, Lenovo, Acer and Sony”
    In Q4 Sony was the 4th phone manufacturer with 9.8 mil units according to IDC data, in tablets they aren’t doing great mostly because of pricing. Their latest tablet does have nice specs and you know that so maybe they do better soon,not that Sony is all that big in PC, they got high prices and they aren’t in top 5, so they are doing better in phones than in PC.
    Lenovo just reported 9.3 mil smarfphones (almost all in China) in q4 and that puts them just outside top 5, in front on Nokia , Blackberry, LG , HTC or Motorola.As for tablets they sold 800k units and that’s not too bad if the 5th vendor has 1 mil and M$ has 900k.

    No idea what IDC includes in the tablet category here when it comes to Windows, would be nice if they would provide some details on OS share and how they define the tablet.
    it seems to be the first time tablets overtake laptops in units shipped in a quarter (they most likely did) and ofc they also overtook desktop shipments.

  8. counting 7 inch tablets there is little reason not to count big phones like the note 2 and than the numbers are even more impressive. quite sure that pc and notebook sales for private use will decrease fast and mobile os´s will rule soon.