Computing’s S-Curve

Last month, Benedict Evans wrote a great post talking about unfair comparisons. He faced some criticism for comparing PC market sales to smartphone market sales. Many claimed it was unfair. What if Benedict’s comparison actually isn’t unfair? What if comparing PCs to smartphones is exactly the right comparison to make?

Screen Shot 2014-05-06 at 3.47.57 PM

The takeaway from this slide is that one segment is shrinking while one is growing. Those with a PC bias will point out the limitations of a smartphone; highlighting what it can’t do according to their bias and use that argument as a basis to state comparing the growth rates of PCs to smartphones is unfair and irrelevant. When in reality neither are true.

The journey of computing has been from big to small and from complex to simple. Computers started in a giant room and are now in our pockets. Computers which used to require many hours of training to become literate (and many used them and never ever became computer literate) are now operated by toddlers.

So enters the next era of computing. It is computing in the post-modern world. It leads us to computing’s s-curve.


The reason comparing PCs to smartphones is not unfair is, for hundreds of millions of people and soon to be a billion people, the pocket computer is their only computer. For them, this is their starting point. But will it be their end point? For many in the PC era, a desktop or notebook PC was the starting point and, to a degree, the smartphone was their end point. As you can see in the chart above, computing is moving forward and is now finally being adopted by the masses in handheld form.

Computing’s history up to this point has been defined and shaped by stationary computers. Tomorrow will be shaped by pervasively connected, context aware, artificially intelligent computers that fit in our hands and pockets. As crazy as it sounds with today’s modern technology, we will look back in 20 years and this era will look like the Stone Ages.

Comparing the sales of smartphones to PC is not just a relevant comparison, it is THE comparison. Mobile is king. People don’t want to be tethered. Those with a PC bias will make the claim the smartphone has limitations – which is true. However, the PC also has limitations, and those limitations are the reason the market size for PCs is smaller than of smartphones. The PC represents the capabilities of what you can do with a computer when stationary and the smartphone represents the capabilities of what you can do when mobile. While both evolve on parallel paths, the size of the market for one is bigger than the other. It is a simple as that. More people value the capabilities of mobile computing than they do of stationary computer regardless of perceived limitations. For many, those limitations are computing enablers.

What the future is we don’t know. What’s beyond a smartphone? A valid question is not only what a smartphone will be in the future but what a computer will be in the future?

On June 4th, in San Francisco, Horace Deidu of Asymco, myself and others are putting on an executive summit called Post Modern Computing. If having a deep dive of the key points in technology history that got us where we are today and where it may all go tomorrow is interesting to you, then I encourage you to learn more at Seats are extremely limited.

Published by

Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

1,320 thoughts on “Computing’s S-Curve”

  1. A spot on, honest position.

    There are pressures, agendas perhaps, to re-define the PC. So be it. Perhaps the very notion of “computing” should be re-defined as well.
    -Is it anything utilizing a CPU? (I don’t think so).
    -Is it email and internet access? (Weakly).
    -Is it Physics and Medical simulations? (Definitely)
    -Photoshop? (Definitely).
    -Is it consuming media? (Then my Blu-Ray player is a computer).

    This is why I’ve always made the distinction between “Appliance Computers” and General Purpose computers (which includes the PC). Due to their hardware, software, AND their implementation they are different. A General Purpose Computer is just that. Most importantly, and distinctly, it doesn’t require another computer to program it.

    1. A mobile device cannot do CAD/CAE or even professional videography, cinematography. The consumer does not do these operations on a routine basis. The mobile phone now has become an email communicator, a phone, a voice recorder, a calendar, a GPS, an audio MP3 player, a point and shoot camera, a video camera, a book reader, a social media tool, a health monitor and so on. All these functions rely on simplicity and ease of use.

      A majority of the people prefer a point and shoot camera while a professional photographer still likes the traditional SLR or large format camera where s/he can adjust everything (aperture, shutter speed, film processing). PCs will shift into a category like professional cameras while the mobile devices will take over the user specific simple operations. With Apple and Google pressing on e-Wallet technology, carrying credit cards might become history. A PC or a laptop will not be needed.

      Who knows, mobile devices might infiltrate into music creation industry and start replacing many hard-wired operations, may get into diagnostics area and simplify things. Sky is the limit for mobile devices right now. There will always be use for PCs and it will become specific to high data crunching operations, productivity related tasks that need deep analysis, calculations, simulations, graphics etc. One never knows, if the chip making technology for processors and memory leapfrog into new avenues, mobile devices might be able to do them all. In twenty years, PCs will be hobby items like HAM radio.

      1. Right! We’ve been driving thumbtacks with sledgehammers. But we don’t call sledgehammers thumbs, or hammers now. Do we?

        1. You are missing the point of your own analogy. It’s not the tool that is compared, it is the job…

          For most “general” purposes, a thumbtack is as good as a nail. Both a nail and a thumbtack hold things on the wall or bulletin board. The professional may need nails to build houses. Those with a house need thumbtacks much more often.

          As you said, thumbtacks have been driven in by sledgehammers when a thumb was sufficient. But, if you happen to need a nail for a particular job, use a hammer by all means.

          1. Yes, it’s the job. I left that out as understood. Still a thumb is a thumb, a hammer is a hammer, and a sledgehammer is a sledgehammer… I feel that the spin of recent months has been trying to convince me that a thumb is a sledgehammer.

          2. No, the “spin”, which many don’t want to accept, is that everyone has two thumbs and most are quite happy without a sledgehammer and yet still do real work.

      2. In the world as we imagine it, there will always be a place for things that require lots of screen and precise input that can be operated for hours at a time. But these are likely to become more specialized and rarefied as “mainstream” computing moves to simpler devices that are ubiquitous. We’ve been using PCs for everything, now we will use them for some things only as needed.

        I can imagine the death of the general purpose computer as even the “heavy duty” tasks define the tools required; rather than getting a “general purpose PC”, those who do loads of Photoshoppy work might have a machine that is oriented towards wonderful resolution, color balance and precise non-linear input. Those who do massive spreadsheet work don’t need all that graphics firepower, they want a big screen and plenty of CPU. Perhaps these don’t need to be the same machine or even run the same OS; they are dedicated tools, optimized for what each does. Maybe.

    2. “Perhaps the very notion of “computing” should be re-defined as well.”

      I’d say it’s the ability to load and run apps beyond those originally built into the device. If all it can do is run preloaded apps, then it’s an appliance. But if it can download and run arbitrary apps, it’s a computer.

      Which is not to say that all computers are the same. An oil company isn’t going to want to do seismic analysis to find their next drill site on a netbook. Nobody’s going to want to use a mainframe to book an Uber cab. So basically I don’t think there’s any such thing as a “general purpose computer” anymore. The kinds of things we ask computers to do have become too diverse for there to be a single form factor or even a single OS that can justly be classified as “general purpose”.

      “Most importantly, and distinctly, it doesn’t require another computer to program it.”

      That’s way too restrictive a criterion. Phones aside, the original 1984 Macintosh was clearly a real computer (it was significantly more capable than any IBM PC or Apple II), but in the beginning, you had to write programs for it on an Apple Lisa.

      1. Your points are well taken, but microcontrollers do exactly what you describe. They are able to take new programs. A lathe machine for instance.

        The original Mac was perfectly capable of being directly programmed, it just didn’t ship with a compiler. Compilers, however, did exist, and could be freely loaded and used. I don’t know the lag between launch and compiler (or interpreter) availability, but it was implemented in a fashion that could be done.

        1. A set of commands for a lathe is data, not a program. Different parts are made with different data sets, all run thru the same control program.

          Of course we can get philosophical about what is a program vs. data. A BASIC program is run thru the interpreter at runtime. By convention we call it a program, but is it data, in the interpreter the real program?

          A discussion for another time and [lace.

  2. The pocket computer is not only the only computer for some; it’s the best computer for all. Cus’ it’s in your pocket, i.e., you have it with you. The best computer … or camera … that is sitting at home when you need it … is worse than useless. Why? Opportunity cost: The money you spent on a computer that is inaccessible could have paid for one that you have at hand.

      1. Yep. I see Ben is doing a conference on postmodern computing, which is more than just mobile computing.

        It’s more than just mobile; it’s personal in a way PCs never where. Coins in your pocket are mobile; your wallet and ID are something else. Your car keys are something else.

        It’s a lot more than computing; more importantly it’s communicating and connecting.

        Personal communicators are not your grandpa’s train set anymore. Whoo whoo.

  3. “The journey of computing has been from big to small and from complex to
    simple. Computers started in a giant room and are now in our pockets.
    Computers which used to require many hours of training to become
    literate (and many used them and never ever became computer literate)
    are now operated by toddlers.”

    Except it’s not a matter of replacement, it’s a matter of addition. There are still computers that fill entire rooms or entire buildings. There are still computers that can only be operated from the command line. They might be less common now than they were before the PC started the whole “miniatureize and simplify” trend, but they’ve never gone away. Likewise, today’s PCs might become less common, but they’re always going to be around.

    The “post PC era” is great marketing but does a very poor job of communicating what’s going to happen. The mobile computer isn’t going to destroy or replace the PC (except in limited contexts), it’s going to complement and add to it.

    1. Yes, the mobile computer is going to complement and add to the PC for many, but it will also decrease the number of PC sales per year as many delay PC replacements, and some choose not to buy a PC at all.

  4. Interesting idea, the notion of throwing out “fairness” and looking at computing in the broadest sense.

    If you’re starting with giant machines that took up entire rooms, which clearly served a non-personal need, what else would you include and would that look like?

    What if you broadened this to all classes of computing? To include servers, infrastructure devices, and even other “personal” technologies like digital cameras and walkmans, etc.? If you’re starting with the giant machines that took up entire rooms, and you want to throw out “unfairness,” what would that look like?

    I imagine that all the computing devices required to support the huge growth of non-PC “personal computing” sitting in all those data centers should clearly contribute to this s-curve as well, for example.

    1. You can start with giant computers in rooms, because that is what computing people “used” in a hands-on way (they stuck punched cards in, and turned dials, etc.). Therefore, it was the equivalent of a “personal” computer today.

      Racks of servers in data centers are in no way used personally, though each supports thousands of mobile users by serving webpages or cloud apps. The technician wandering through the racks probably uses an iPad or MacBook to monitor all the Linux servers.

      PC sales may or may not already include sales of rack-mounted servers to data centres. If they do, then “PC” sales are still falling. If they don’t, well, again, they aren’t really “personal” computers, are they?

      Perhaps data-center servers aren’t even purchased in the same way as “PCs” anyway — perhaps they are kits of boxes and CPUs bought by the pallet load and put together in the data centre, since each data centre likes to be in full control of configuration from the ground up as their proprietary differentiator. But be that as it may, PC sales figures that include racked servers may yet be falling, unless racked units are growing faster than the general decline.

  5. In reference to the second chart, tablet growth is shown to fall behind the equivalent smartphone growth after this year. The reason for this ridiculously conservative estimate is the source: analysts who count Microsoft and traditional PC makers as their customers. While they can’t deny the past and present, they can predict a drop-off for tablet growth in the future.

    In truth, as highlighted by Horace at Asymco, tablets are growing about twice as fast as smartphone, just count the first four light green bars (11-14) and compare them to the first four dark green (05-08). To imagine that will slow down after this year is simply wishful thinking from PC OEMs and their analyst mouthpieces.

    1. Keep in mind I”m sharing our forecasts in that chart as well. Also keep in mind our forecasts for tablets are more aggressive than most other firms I see.

      But overall I agree, we remain extremely bullish on tablets. Horace and I will also dive into this topic in our summit.

  6. I think the biggest theme of postmodernism is a decentralization/democratization of just about anything one can think of. For instance, in the arts in the US, New York has long been effectively the only place one could make a mark as an artist. That is shifting more and more. It doesn’t mean NYC is _not_ important, just that it isn’t the universal center it once was. Trey McIntyre can make his home in Boise, ID, and still be considered a major player in the dance world. He still has to go to NYC, but he doesn’t have to stay there or even start there. Twenty year ago that was unimaginable.

    Similarly, the newspaper or news broadcasts aren’t the only places for news anymore. The local radio station or local club/bar are not the only places to find music, etc. Systems that have existed for centuries are being deconstructed the world over.

    The PC is not going away, but it isn’t the central/primary computing device it once was.

    I wish i could make it to your summit! Envious of others who can.


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