The PC Decline: Four Key Points to Note

The PC market is in decline

The PC industry isn’t getting any healthier. Both IDC’s and Gartner’s figures for PC shipments in the first quarter are out and both show the same direction of travel: down 11.5% to 60.6m units for IDC, down 9.6% to 64.8m units for Gartner.

There are some variations between what the two count as a “PC”: IDC doesn’t include Windows tablets, 2-in-1s such as the Lenovo Yoga, but does include Chromebooks; Gartner doesn’t include Chromebooks, but does include 2-in-1s and Windows tablets. (You might think comparing the two datasets would make it easy to spot who is doing well in Chromebooks, and who isn’t doing well in 2-in-1s or Windows tablets. Sadly, that turns out not to be true; but we can say Chromebooks account for only a few million sales per year and there aren’t any clear signs of that changing.)

At the moment, PC shipments have receded below the point they were at in 3Q 2006 (by IDC’s data); that’s nearly a decade of progress wiped out. It’s a category in retreat. The peak was in 3Q 2011, at 96.1m (IDC) or 95.4m (Gartner).

There are a few points to note in what’s going on.

The Long Slow Goodbye

First, Windows PCs are in serious long-term decline, more so than Apple. Once you subtract Apple’s contribution, you find Windows shipments have been in a year-on-year decline for 15 straight quarters. That’s nearly four years.

Windows PC shipments are falling

Something Happened

Second, the trigger for that decline is entirely unlike the trigger for previous declines in PC shipments. If you look at the long-term view, there are three points since 1999 when Windows PC shipments have shrunk: near the end of 2001 (during a worldwide recession), the end of 2008 (during the global financial crash), and towards the end of 2012.

Three points where Windows shipments fell

What happened in 2012? Nothing external. Instead, the decline seems to have been prompted by the twin thrust of tablets and smartphones. Tablets became broadly available (the iPad 2 dropped in price) and smartphone screens grew larger (the first Samsung Galaxy Note, with a 5.3in screen, had been launched at the end of 2011, and the Note 2 was coming along).

Ben Thompson, writing at Stratechery ($subscription), suggests PCs are being disrupted. What we’re seeing is “less capable” and cheaper devices (tablets and smartphones) taking over the jobs that were being done by much more capable devices. But the users didn’t generally need that capability; browsing, email, writing text, organising and uploading photos and watching video, plus a few games, tended to fill the gamut of what most people need to do on a computer.

Certainly, all the signs are that Thompson is right. That 2012 decline points strongly to a change and, at Gartner, Mikako Kitagawa says, “The ongoing decline in US PC shipments showed that the installed base is still shrinking, a factor that played across developed economies.” A shrinking PC installed base? That must be quite a worry. But it’s what we’re seeing.

Linn Huang of IDC offers something of a hostage to fortune: “The PC market should experience a modest rebound in the coming months.”

The Others

Third, anyone in the “Other” category is probably getting pretty worried now. Even Acer has fallen out of the top five computer makers, displaced by Apple. (I continue to include it, estimating its volumes as slightly below Apple’s.)

"Other" PC suppliers, absolute shipments

"Other" PC players are being squeezed out

If you take “Other” to be companies such as Toshiba, Samsung, Fujitsu, and a myriad of others, then both their share and absolute number of shipments is going in a bad direction:
• Toshiba is struggling with an accounting scandal, and its PC shipments in the US fell by at least 25% in the first quarter, from 0.94m to less than 0.71m. The “Lifestyle” division, which includes the PC business, has seen revenues nearly halved since the calendar first quarter of 2014, and made an operating loss for the past 15 quarters.
• Samsung has withdrawn from Europe’s PC business and is hard to see elsewhere; its PC business is rolled into its IM division, which also includes its mobile division, for accounting. In Q4 2015 (the latest quarter for which there are figures) those revenues were US$780m – which would translate to 1m PCs sold at an ASP of $780, or more possibly 1.5m sold at an ASP of $520, or 2m at $390. (To make the top five for Q4 required shipment volumes of at least 5m.)
• For the fourth quarter, Fujitsu says revenues from PCs fell; it’s been saying that for at least a year.

There’s also a squeeze on Asian sub-scale PC makers, because the dollar’s strength hits them hard when they have to source components from the US (Microsoft Windows, perhaps?). That eats into profitability while the bigger players corner more of the market.

All this is going to lead to further consolidation. There’s already talk that Toshiba or Fujitsu will sell their PC businesses. Smaller companies might just shut up shop or seek a buyer.

Apple: Doing Fine, Thanks

Fourth, Apple is still solid. The USB-C Macbook is a year old and doesn’t show any sign of having set the PC world on fire but since the end of 2004 (a period stretching 46 quarters), Windows PCs have only seen faster than Apple growth in two quarters. Even while Apple’s total shipments (according to IDC and Gartner, ahead of Apple’s formal results later this month) fell in the most recent quarter, it was still nothing like the overall fall for Windows PC makers. Only Dell managed to stay upright better on the slippery slope, falling by 2.0% against Apple’s 2.1% (IDC); Gartner reckons Apple did better, showing 1.0% growth, but was bested by Asus with a 1.5% rise – perhaps through Windows tablet or convertible shipments.

What neither shows is that Apple commands the highest average prices in the industry. Once the figures for this quarter are in I’ll return to the topic but, for now, here are the figures for average selling prices (calculated from company financials and IDC shipment figures) for the big six PC companies:

Average selling prices for top PC makers

As you can see, Apple is miles above the rest there. That also means it can grab a healthy profit, which allows it to stay in business when others struggle.

Conclusion

For the longer term? PCs are contracting towards a core base of users who really want or need them. If people want to be able to plug in USB sticks or SD cards, there’s a PC there for them. But it turns out that lots of people don’t and they’re voting with their wallets. That’s creating a squeeze on the smaller players, but even the big players don’t have it easy – unless, like Apple, they can charge a premium.

NVIDIA’S Tegra 3 Leading the Way for Smartphone Modularity

I have been an advocate of modularity before it became popular to do so. The theory seems straight-forward to me, in that if the capabilities of a smartphone were outpacing the usage model drivers of a rich client PC, then consumers someday could use their own smartphone as a PC.  Large displays, keyboards and mice still exist in this usage model, but the primary intelligence is in the smartphone then combined with wireless peripherals.  At this year’s Mobile World Congress, NVIDIA took us one step closer to this reality with their partners and the formal announcement of Tegra 3 based smartphones.

Tegra 3 for Smartphones

Tegra 3 is NVIDIA’s latest and greatest SOC for smartphones, “superphones“,  and tablets.  It has four ARM A9- based high performance, 1.5 GHz cores and one “battery saver” core that operates when the lowest power is required.  The fifth core comes in handy when the system is idling or when the phone is checking for messages.  Tegra 3 also includes a very high performance graphics subsystem for games and watching HD video, much more powerful than Qualcomm’s current Adreno 2XX hardware and software implementation.

clip_image004NVIDIA announced five major Tegra 3 designs at Mobile World Congress; the HTC One X, LG Optimus 4X HD, ZTE Era, Fujitsu’s “ultra high spec smartphone” and the K-Touch Treasure V8.  These wins were in what NVIDIA coins as “superphones” as they have the largest screens, the highest resolutions, the best audio, etc.  You get the idea.  For example, the HTC One X sports a 4.7″ 720P HD display, the latest Android 4.0 OS, Beats audio, NFC (Near Field Communication), and its own image processor with a 28mm lens to take great pictures at extremely low light.  You get the idea.

There is a lot of goodness in the package, but that doesn’t remove the challenge of communicating the benefits of four cores on a 5 inch screen device.

Quad Core Phone Challenge

As I wrote previously, NVIDIA needs to overcome the challenge of leveraging four cores beyond the spec on the retail tear clip_image002pad.  It’s a two part challenge, the first to actually make sure there is a real benefit, then to articulately and simply communicate that.  These are similar challenges PC manufacturers had to deal with.  The difference is that PC makers had 20 years of dual socket machines to establish an ecosystem and a messaging system.  Quad core tablets are an easier challenge and quad core convertibles are even easier in that you can readily spot places where 4 cores matter like web browsing and multitasking. Smartphones is a different situation in that due to screen size limitations, multitab browsing and multitasking rarely pegs a phone to its limits.  One major exception is in a modular environment where NVIDIA shines the most.

Tegra 3 Shines the Most in Modular Usage Models

Modularity, simply put, is extending the smartphone beyond the built-in limitations. Those limitations are in the display, audio, and input mechanisms.  When the smartphone breaks the barriers of itself, this is where NVIDIA Tegra 3 shines the most.  I want to be clear; Tegra 3 is a competitive and differentiated smartphone and tablet SOC without modularity, but is most differentiated when it breaks free from its limited environment.

NVIDIA has done a much better job showing the vision of modularity but its partners could do a better job actually delivering it.  On the positive side, partners are showing some levels of modularity. HTC just announced the HTC Link for the HTC One X, software and hardware solution that plugs into an HDTV where you can wirelessly mirror what is on the phone’s display.  It’s like Apple’s AirPlay but better in some ways like being able to project a video on the large display and do something different on the phone display, like surfing the web.  Details are a bit sketchy specifically for the HTC One X and HTC Link, but I am hopeful they will roll out some useful modular features in the future for usage models. Apple already supports wireless mirroring supporting games so in this way, HTC Link is behind.

What NVIDIA Tegra 3 Should Do

What NVIDIA’s partners need to create is a game console and digital media adapter solution that eliminates the need to buy an XBOX, PlayStation, Wii, Roku, or Apple TV.  The partners then need to attack that.  All of the base clip_image006software and hardware is already there and what HTC, ZTE, or LG needs to do now is package it to make it more convenient for gaming. This Tegra 3 “phone-console” should have a simple base near the TV providing it power, wired LAN, HDMI, and USB.  This way, someone could connect a wireless game controller and play games like the recently announced Tegra 3 optimized games in great resolutions with rich audio. The user would have the ability to send phone calls to voice mail or even to a Bluetooth headset.  Notifications can be muted if desired as well.  And of course, if you want to watch Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon movies it’s all there, too.  The alternative to this scenario is for a Wi-Fi Direct implementation that doesn’t require a base where the user can utilize the phone as a multi-axis game controller with force feedback.  The challenge here is battery life but the user can pause the game or movie and pick up phone calls and messages. This usage model isn’t for everyone, but think for a moment about a teenager or college bound guy who loves gaming, wants a cool phone, and doesn’t have the cash to buy everything.  You know the type.

Other types of modularity that NVIDIA’s partners must develop are around productivity, where the phone drives a laptop shell, similar to Motorola’s Lapdock implementations as I analyzed here. Neither the software, hardware, or price made the Lapdock a good solution, but many of the technologies now exist to change that.  NVIDIA’s Tegra 3 would be a great start in that it enables real multitasking when using the Lapdock in clamshell PC mode.  Android 4.0 provides a much more modular computing environment to properly display applications on a 5″ and 11″ display including scaling the fonts and reorienting windows.  The Motorola Lapdock used two environments, one Android Gingerbread a a different one for PC mode.  Unsurprisingly, it was a good start but very rough one too, with room to improve.

NVIDIA, the Silicon Modularity Leader with Tegra 3

NVIDIA with its Tegra 3 solution is clearly the current silicon leader to support future modular use cases.  They are ahead of the pack with their modularity vision, patiently waiting for their partners to catch up.  This was the most evident at CES where NVIDIA showed an ASUS Transformer Prime connected to an XBOX controller and an HDTV playing high quality games. They also demoed the Prime playing high end PC games through remote desktop. Now that is different.

The opportunity for HTC, ZTE, LG and potentially new customers like Sony, RIM, and Nokia is there, and the only question remains is if they see the future well enough to capitalize on it.  With all the complaints from handset vendors on differentiation and profitability with Android, I continue to be puzzled by their lack of aggression.  An aggressive handset maker will jump on this opportunity in the next two years and make a lot of money doing in the process.