PC Growth isn’t Flat, Windows Is

on July 13, 2012

We are living in fascinating times as the personal computing industry is undergoing its biggest transformation since its inception. Tablet computing is leading the charge and forcing nearly everyone in the industry to relearn what they knew about personal computing and its future.

There is no doubt that personal computing is evolving and transforming. With my role as an industry analyst, I believe it is important to present information to the industry which reflects what is accurately happening in the market at any given time. It is for this reason that I believe that not including tablets in industry wide PC sales numbers and forecasts is disingenuous and does not accurately reflect market conditions.

Recent quarter estimates from IDC and Gartner made headlines as they point out that PC growth is remaining relatively flat. There are more theories surrounding this point than I have time to get into but the bottom line is that there is simply no growth happening right now with desktops and clamshell notebooks.

So what is happening in the market and what can we learn about the current conditions within consumer markets? A series of interesting data points lead to an important observation. That observation is that PCs aren’t flat or in decline, demand for the Windows platform is.

Horace Dediu at Asymco created a fascinating chart and series of data points where he broke down the Windows platform advantage and how it is eroding. In the following chart he created he points out how in 2004 the Windows platform peaked in its multiple of Windows products shipped per single Mac shipped. After 2004 multiples began to decrease and starting in 2007 with the release of the iPhone, there is a steady and rapid decline of the Windows platform advantage.

This chart can be summed up with the following significant point Horace makes in his article:

“If we consider all the devices Apple sells, the whittling becomes even more significant and the multiple drops to below 2. Seen this way, Post-PC devices wiped out of leverage faster than it was originally built. They not only reversed the advantage but cancelled it altogether.”

Now turning to the flat notebook and desktop growth trend. My conviction is that tablet computers (defined as tablets with screen sizes larger than 9.7 inches) is an evolution of the computing form factor but still a personal computer. This is why I agree with Canalys who includes tablets as PCs in their market data.

I shared my opinion about tablets and the new era of personal computing in this column.

If we were to include tablets into the data for personal computers we would see that the market is not in decline but actually a steep incline. In fact if we were to include tablets into personal computer shipment forecasts for 2012 we would see over 100% year over year growth.

By choosing to not include tablets we will be lucky if we see 20% growth in this calendar year. But as I stated at the beginning of this column, to not include tablets in PC shipments would not be an accurate reflection of what is happening in the market.

We can debate semantics all day as to whether or not tablets should be considered PCs. All the while our interviews with consumers are consistently proving that they are using their iPads as computers to do many, and in some cases all, of the regular tasks they used to do with their notebooks. Given the ways we see consumers using iPads there is simply no denying that the iPad is a personal computer. Some people will have their personal computing needs met by a tablet, others by notebooks, and others by desktops, or even perhaps some combination of the three.

The iPad, and tablets in general, simply represent an evolution of the form and function of a personal computer. Therefore we should count them as PCs but breakout their specific shipment growth amidst other computing form factors like we do already with desktops and notebooks.

Now obviously if we did this we would show that most if not all of the PC growth belongs to Apple. But as I said at the beginning I am interested in accurately presenting what is happening in the industry and most of the growth does in fact belong to Apple.

So now the question remains as to whether or not Windows 8 will be the great equalizer and inject growth into PCs, both clamshell and tablet, for non Apple vendors. That is a question I will let linger until a later time.

However, this fact remains and needs to be continually emphasized. If we step back and look at what is happening holistically in the personal computer market, it is clear that we are not in a phase of flat or declining growth, rather we are at the beginning of a rapid and exciting growth phase.