The Sky is Falling!

If you read too much of the tech media you sometimes get the impression that the tech world is ending. The PC industry is in decline and many are quick to declare it dead. Now, our love affair with tablets are over according to many recent articles. Smartphones growth is slowing. We are in a tech bubble. I could keep going with apparent bad news. The media has to do what it needs to do to survive. Bad news sells. But the end of the technology industries growth period and innovation is hardly over.

Mature, Maturing, and Green Fields

Something I think gets largely missed by most who observe this industry relates to its maturity. Is the technology mature or is it not? If it is not mature it will act one way. If it is mature it will act another. What makes the answer to this question fascinating is that it is both mature and maturing at the same time. In developed markets the technology industry is mature. This is why we see competitive dynamics like differentiation, segmentation (in both product mix and price tiers), and more savvy consumers to their needs, wants, and desires for the products they shop for. Some may look to segmentation as the biggest indicator of a mature market but I choose to look at consumers themselves. Once consumers start becoming self aware to the point that they are specifically selecting this product over that one for reasons only they have worked out that are important to them, then we know we have a mature market.

Mature markets, and in this case industries, are what lead to new technologies to be adopted very quickly. In the case of the tablet, its success and rapid adoption was a direct result of consumers being familiar with PCs and smartphones. When the iPad came out it was easier for consumers in mature markets to grasp its value. This is why the tablet has been the fastest adopted consumer electronics device to reach 500m install base which it achieved in 2013. This point, of a mature market, was one of the underlying points we used in our logic to forecast the aggressive tablet volumes we did in 2010.

The mature market dynamics also explain why the segment is slowing as well as its now fully established seasonality. Note the peaks at each Q4 for tablet shipments since 2010.

Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 9.34.44 PM

Now Let’s take a look at a few other charts showing certain products in a mature market with full swings in seasonality. Note the shape and the peaks.


What you notice about the two charts above is the ramp up and then a peak. We have reached peak desktop notebook form factor. This market is no longer growing and in fact it is contracting. The PC as we knew it–a desktop or a notebook–has passed its peak. This market will remain since a good many people still need a device they can sit at a desk to do long form deep work like spreadsheets, create CAD documents, write software, make a motion picture, edit professional photographs, etc.

Unlike the PC market, the iPod is fading into irrelevance. The capabilities of the iPod have been integrated into the smartphone. Now while I believe there is a market–just a rather small one–for the desktop and notebook form factor, it is interesting to think about what core features that were unique to the PC are now integrated into the tablet? ((This was the core of my article from yesterday) In many of the same ways the iPod was the only device for music, the PC has been the only device for other use cases which have now started to be taken over by the tablet. Web browsing, watching videos, using social media, and many other things were once desktop use cases and have now been integrated into the tablet.

The other key thing to point out with regard to the PC chart is that not only did we pass peak PC, the device itself shifted to longer life cycles. During the highest growth period of the PC the refresh rate was every 2 years. Now, the average is 5 years and growing. All the above is useful to understand what is happening with the PC market. It is not dying, the market is simply correcting itself. The PC over served the needs of many consumers and once they got a netbook or tablet they realized it. The PC still exists in their home but they don’t use it as much. Stock markets correct themselves as investors settle at a valuation that seems to be accepted. So the PC market is correcting itself and it too will settle into a degree of steadiness in annual shipments.

The tablet is undergoing a continued growth period but is also experiencing much more seasonal swings than the PC did. The lifecycle of the tablet is still also unknown. When we look back in 2-3 years at these updated charts for tablets, I believe we will see patterns that have shades of both the quarterly data points of the PC and the iPod. Yet, we are no where near peak tablet.

As interesting as mature market dynamics are to observe, the real question is where do we go from here. If you follow my analysis you know that I have thrown the stat out from our research that 90% of current tablet owners also own a PC. That leaves about 5.5 billion people who don’t have a PC or a tablet. The install base of smartphones either has passed that of PCs or will pass any day now. Bringing computing to the next 5 billion plus is going to happen and it will likely be a 20 year journey, or longer. However, the key thing to remember about being on a journey is the scenery changes.

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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

34 thoughts on “The Sky is Falling!”

  1. Many ideas have been brought up on these pages about tablets and smartphone vis a vis PC’s. For the purposes of this comment, let’s consider PC’s to be desktops and laptops and Appliance Computer (AP’s) for mobile.

    On one hand, as many authors and commenters have pointed out, the AP form factor has established new or improved usage patterns and usage scenarios. On the other, AP’s are inherently limited in their hardware and both inherently and artificially limited in their software capabilities. PC’s are only relatively inhibited in their mobility. The race to the bottom has happened in parallel with the new mobile paradigm. This rings more true in light of the fact that PC’s have been oversold for decades now.

    The market has become more granular. That’s a good thing. It also sets up the opportunity for a new equilibrium, the “Post PC”. I consider this new equilibrium more as an era, rather than a particular device. As anyone who reads my comments can attest, it’s imperative that we don’t lose the self determination of the PC era.

    1. How I ended this article is where I will spend more time fleshing out over the coming months. We know quite a bit about mature market consumers. We know the size and reach of the market that can afford things like PCs, and premium devices like tablets, or other screens that make up a computing solution. Doing what the industry has done today (with tabs and PCs) we have not reached much more than 1.5b people. Growth is slowing because of this this.

      So what about the next billion? I have a chart I will show as I dive into this showing the price bands as a mix of forecasts for smartphones. The bulk of the next 1billion new smartphone/internet users will come from devices costing less than $150.

      How the developing world embraces technology is key to think if we care of parting some of the fog clouding the future. This is why I look at technology completely differently for all segments depending on the region. But if more consumers come online with cheap smartphones first, then the big question is where do they go from there and how to technology companies meet them where they are. This is why I’m very keen on companies like Xiaomi, who are employing a regional specific strategy. If more companies with regional manufacturing capabilities figure this out, it will make it very hard for many foreign brands to compete for the next billion plus.

  2. Don’t forget that the iPod was replaced by something that, because of its other features, is “the best iPod we’ve ever made.” It wasn’t replaced; it was obsoleted.

    The same is happening, but going sideways, with the PC and the tablet. It’s not there yet, but the tablet should be moving in the trajectory of “the best PC we’ve ever made.”

    1. Should Apple make a hypothetical iPad Pro, with memory slot and USB3, running OSX and not exclusively tethered to the App Store, I will buy one if it’s priced like the Surface Pro. It’s okay if it’s thicker/heavier than any iPad before it.

      1. You might want to bring a pillow while you wait for that to happen…and some reading material. I hear Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude is a fun read…

      2. Have you heard of Macbook Air or the MacPro laptop? They seem to have all thing in your dream list. And they come with built in keyboards. They cost a little more than Surface Pro.

          1. Respectfully, I believe you’re judging the MBA and MBP by antiquated standards.

            Both products use SSD’s and, effectively, require zero service. If you dream the display or pour water into the keyboard, you will require service, but they are no less serviceable than any other product on the market in that regards.

            I always buy my products on a credit card (e.g. American Express) that adds an additional year of warranty replacement coverage or, in some cases, doubles the length of the manufacturer’s coverage.

            There are only 3 things that could conceivably be upgraded on a laptop: the CPU, memory and storage. Realistically, nobody upgrades the CPU. Even if you were to do so, most likely the rest of the chipset is incompatible.

            On both the MBA and the MBP, you can go to third parties (like OWC – MacSales) to buy replacement SSD sticks or upgrade to larger sizes. I’ve only done this once, but it takes about 15 minutes, and is as painless as can be.

            Memory is not serviceable, but Apple doesn’t charge a premium for its memory. Just get the max and be happy. Typically the chipset doesn’t support more memory than Apple will sell, so you still wouldn’t be able to upgrade the memory further.

            Mac batteries last 1000 charges or more without slipping below 80% charge. I have laptops in active use that date back to 2008. It’s simply a non-issue. I have 2200 charges on my oldest laptop. Even if it does, the Apple store will replace the battery in 2 hours typically.

            In the unlikely event that a fan fails, just swing by your local Apple store. Again, the repair will take less than an afternoon, and I doubt you’d do that yourself on any other laptop.

            I have dozens of Macs at my firm, in constant use. The older non-SSD machines will have an occasional drive failure or someone will drop one down a flight of stairs and break the display or hinge (women and their high heels). The SSD-based laptops are like tanks. They just keep going.

            In summary, buy your laptops with the maximum memory and use a credit card to extend the warranty to save over buying AppleCare (which is also awesome, by the way). It would be an extreme case that you would ever need to service the laptop and the only upgrade worth doing is if you “go cheap” on the SSD.

            We only buy max’ed out configurations and, as a result, have worry-free experiences.

          2. Always respectfully…

            I admit I’m in the minority, but I like to upgrade my machines as I go along. That’s one way I end up with spare parts, as per our previous conversation. The laptop RAM I bought for the NUC we discussed? $100 for 16 GB of PC-1600. Locally at retail! Apple comes nowhere near this. MBA 4GB -> 8 GB $100 for 4 GB. That’s 4x more! Regarding SSD’s, I actually do upgrade them and repurpose them.

          3. I don’t quite agree on your memory pricing because an NUC is not a laptop. The memory used in the MBA and MBP is of a different form factor and timing matrix.

            True, you can’t upgrade the memory, but I can’t imagine a budget so tight that one can’t splurge $100 to double the RAM. Yet, I will concede that if $100 is a budget buster, the RAM can’t be added later.

            As for serviceability, what, exactly, would you service? Everything is either solid state or serviceable even though it’s covered by warranty anyhow. Visit iFixit. The MBA/MBP don’t have flaps for changing the SSD or accessing the logic board, but it’s 10 screws to get inside. One screwdriver. See

            Fact is, Macs retain their value so well that you can generally sell last year’s Mac, add $50 and buy a brand new one. If you try to sell your NUC, you’d be lucky to get $50 for the whole thing, perhaps a bit more if you sell the individual parts. The economics are different.

            I’m reminded of one of my employees who wanted to purchase a Camry. I talked him into leasing a Camry SE instead, with more options than the “stripper” he wanted to buy and we haggled for a pretty good deal. He was able to sell the car a year later for a tidy profit slightly less than his total lease payments. Yet he still tells people that he doesn’t like the idea of leasing. He drove a brand new car for free for 11 months, but couldn’t get over the thought that he wasn’t buying the car. It made him miserable.

            If you have your heart set on an NUC that you can tinker with, I don’t want to talk you into a Mac. I’m sure you have your reasons! I do, however, take issue with the statement that MBA/MBP are “completely non-serviceable or upgradable.” If that were true, I wouldn’t be able to link to step-by-step repair instructions at or to SSD upgrade kits at

          4. I have 4 MPB’s in the house (circa 2008-2010) and an i7 Mac Mini server (2011). They hardly get used any more. As for the RAM, I just wanted to point out that it’s standard, high spec RAM. Looking at it the other way, it’s also about spending $100 and quadrupling the RAM.

            As to serviceability, I mean buying a 128 GB SSD unit to start and adding a larger one later. To upgrade one needs to be able to service. I agree that laptops aren’t too serviceable, but any MBP I would buy now isn’t serviceable at all. An upgrade at the time of purchase is not really an upgrade.

            Sell my NUC? Not the point. New it was $359 + $100 for the RAM. Linux was free. A full PC for the price of an Android tablet! Yes, I got it to play with, but it’s quite capable.

            I do agree on the used market value of Apple devices. No question. Honestly, I don’t buy or sell used equipment. I do donate used equipment though.

          5. I’m curious then as to what it is OWC is selling for SSD upgrades for a MBPr. I’ve been keeping an eye on the 500 gig SSDs (oddly, 480 gigs at OWC) since I went with the 250 gig when I bought my MBPr. I figure in another year the price should come down to something I would be willing to spend.

            People like us are a dying breed, klahanas. I remember a few years back sitting in my daughter’s dorm at Georgia Tech while all her friends watched in awe as I replaced the hard drive in her MacBook. It’s Georgia Tech for goodness sake! Tech and computer science majors! Oy!

            Just like with cars, there is almost no need to “tinker” anymore except for the pleasure of it. There will always be mechanics who like to work on their own cars. No one else really wants to do that. That kind of “knowledge” or skill is quickly being relegated as something too trivial to be concerned about.


          6. True, but an extremely few cars come with their hoods sealed and can only be maintained by the dealer.

          7. “True, but an extremely few cars come with their hoods sealed and can only be maintained by the dealer.”

            Maybe the hoods aren’t sealed but the engines are becoming more and more sealed. Some cars it is impossible for the owner to even change their spark plugs.

            I am getting to the point with my attitude for hardware that “ease of use” means never needing to tinker, just like with the OS. I remember when OS X first came out and people kept asking me if I liked the terminal. I simply said “If everyone else does their job properly, I’ll never have to”. I don’t really ever want to have to do any of those things anymore and it pisses me off when I have to. I don’t have time for it anymore.


          8. “True, but an extremely few cars come with their hoods sealed and can only be maintained by the dealer.”

            Maybe the hoods aren’t sealed but the engines are becoming more and more sealed. Some cars it is impossible for the owner to even change their spark plugs.

            I am getting to the point with my attitude for hardware that “ease of use” means never needing to tinker, just like with the OS. I remember when OS X first came out and people kept asking me if I liked the terminal. I simply said “If everyone else does their job properly, I’ll never have to”. I don’t really ever want to have to do any of those things anymore and it pisses me off when I have to. I don’t have time for it anymore.


          9. Under the hood of my Acura,which is not unusual for today’s cars, essentially the only user-serviceable part is the battery, which can be replaced without extreme effort (you can also check fluid levels and add fluids.) Everything else requires special tools, special test instruments, and special expertise.

            The reason why this is the case for cars is different than for computers, but the result is the same. I used to be able to fix all sorts of things on my cars and computers, now I rarely open the hood or the cases.

          10. That’s a pretty good analogy. My BMW doesn’t even let you check the fluids with dip sticks. It doesn’t have any. Must be done from the dashboard. Innovative? Meh! Maybe in it’s vanity. Still, however, you can get aftermarket options and “upgrade”, and not be forced to buy the rip off dealer options.

          11. I find it hilarious that my current car has no mechanical key holes…none for the doors, trunk, glove compartment or ignition. If the battery dies, the entire car is one big brick.

            In my case, there are no dipsticks. You have to connect to the OBD port.

          12. OWC uses SandForce controllers with 7% provisioning. The difference between 480 and 512 is used to mitigate write amplification.

            Just curious, do you complain that your microwave oven doesn’t allow you to tinker with it? For a fringe few, that may be interesting. Most can’t be bothered to enter a cycle time, choosing to press the “1 minute start” button and just open the door when it’s been long enough.

            Have you ever performed customer support for computer hardware or software? You do realize that the vast majority can’t be trusted to change a power cord, much less static-sensitive RAM.

            Reality is that a support call costs $25, and there’s a massive fixed cost for having support staff available by phone or even e-mail. Products will become simpler and more locked down because nobody wants to pay more for support or for products that are user-serviceable. The move is toward products that don’t need servicing except in extreme cases…

            Have you seen what Toyota/Lexus are doing with their cars nowadays? Yes, you can open the hood, but all you’ll see is one big sheet of plastic with the “Loser” symbol on it (see image). One of the highly competent engineers I worked with didn’t know that tires wear out and eventually need to be replaced. Similarly, you would find it a challenge to buy a new car with a manual transmission nowadays; if you’re lucky, you can get a DSG, but nobody drives “stick” anymore except us old geezers.

            For that matter, I used to love developing prints and slides in my own darkroom with my own chemicals. Tinkering with different processes was interesting, but anyone who uses a film camera today, much less develops their own slides, is either hard core or works for the NSA.

            At some point, you have to realize that things are changing. Otherwise you end up being Microsoft and wake up to a world that has passed you by.

          13. “Apple comes nowhere near this. MBA 4GB -> 8 GB $100 for 4 GB. That’s 4x more”

            It’s really bewildering to me to read complaints like this about how Apple overcharges for their RAM upgrades. Because the cost of buying the RAM from Crucial is not the real cost of a RAM upgrade — there’s also the time it takes to install and test it, and the risk of something going wrong in the process. (Not talking at the moment about MBA and retina MBP with their soldered RAM)

            Sure, if you are comfortable with taking the computer apart and putting the RAM in yourself, and comfortable with taking the risk that you inadvertently static-shock a chip and render the RAM or even the whole computer useless, AND also you value your own time at zero dollars an hour, then the cost of buying RAM and installing it yourself will save you money.

            However, if you value your time, if you are not comfortable with a screwdriver, or if you are not comfortable with risking the destruction of something you paid over $1000 for, then Apple’s fee for maxing out the RAM at time of purchase is a bargain compared to taking it to a local shop and asking them to install extra RAM for you.

            Once you look at it that way, it doesn’t matter that the new Airs and Pros cannot have their RAM upgraded — the cost is the same as before, it’s just that now you can only have it done at the time of purchase by Apple. Considering the huge number of scalpers and parasites who charge outrageous amounts for “maxed out” macs*, I’m not going to cry any tears if their little corner of the market goes away because of Apple’s obsession with making their computers as portable as possible.

            * search ebay’s desktop category for “mac mini” and choose “highest price first” sorting, and then boggle at the audacity of sellers charging $1200 for installing 16gb of RAM, a 1TB hdd, and a 500gb SSD into a new i7 mini.

          14. No question that opening their case is not for everyone. It is slightly more difficult than screwing in a light bulb, but it’s not for everyone. The longest it should take is 5 minutes. Again, it comes down to openness. Competition on where you can buy your RAM. You could do this on Apple until recently. I do see your point on comfort however. I would NEVER attempt to open an iMac. These are heading towards non-upgradability too.

          15. “The longest it should take is 5 minutes.”

            On some notebooks, maybe. On others, not so much. I’ve had thinkpads that you unscrewed two screws and there were the RAM slots. I’ve had other thinkpads where you had to remove the palmrest, add the ram, and then curse at the thing for anywhere from 10 minutes to half an hour in order to get the palmrest back on properly. I know there are other laptops where it’s even more vexing, but I haven’t had the misfortune to work on them yet.

            “Having worked on my Mac mini, let me tell you… Adding an SSD took hours and I literally had to disassemble the whole machine down to a partial motherboard removal. That’s still serviceable, but it’s like
            having to remove your transmission to change your oil.”

            Having had to disassemble my 2009 mini half a dozen times to date*, I feel your pain. However, it didn’t feel all that much out of line with my experience with other computers (see above re thinkpads). If I had compared it to upgrading a generic homebuilt ATX tower, then the mini would have come out poorly… but instead I remembered that this isn’t a desktop, it’s a nanocomputer… and compared to other nanocomputers, not only was it a bargain, it’s actually reasonably easy to service.

            *(adventures with a bad RAM chip, plus due to an incompetent vendor, I had to go through 3 optical drive-to-hard drive adapters before I finally got one that was the right form factor)

          16. I hear you loud and clear. What can I say, companies are schmucks sometimes!
            As an aside, setting up the NUC, including downloading and installing Linux took a half hour.

  3. I watched the movie Terminator a couple of days ago. It was made in 1984. I looked carefully at the technology in vogue at that time – Pay phones with big, thick yellow pages hanging; no cell phones; no hacking and so on. This was a movie about something from the future. The cyborg comes in from some far away future into 1984 and reads addresses on telephone books! It did not have in built database from the future to go with it. But it had hydrogen fuel cells using which it operates (they said that in the third movie). At around the same time in 1984, who would have thought of tablets! Apple had just released the state of the art Macintosh that looked futuristic, elegant and one could not think how much more cool things would look in the future. I used to wonder during those years what else is coming? That tiny little GUI and mouse with a 3.5 inch floppy drive looked so cool! Then they brought tilting monitors – one could go from landscape mode to portrait mode. Word processing looked awesome! Before that we were struggling with “.pic” on the Unix and printing out on laser printers or sometimes on dot matrix printers to see how the output came out. There was Quattro Pro, Word Perfect, Lotus1-2-3 all looking revolutionary. IBM selectric and Brother typewriters were still around. Secretaries still knew how to type on them for official documents. And then there was Windows 3.1 which ran off the DOS. Multi-tasking was a dream. When Windows 95 came, it was a huge relief. Now that Apple had disappeared into the horizon, there was no other alternative and Windows 95 was the way to go. Then came Windows NT. Then it was Netscape. I read a Time magazine issue about the potential of the internet that was about to come where one can see maps (avoiding those trip-tiks from AAA), restaurant menus, reviews and so on. A new dream had dawned on. We saw eBay, Yahoo, Intuit, Amazon, Google and new players along with Napster, WinMX and other illegal aspects of this new horizon. Changes were now beginning to happen more rapidly. Companies that rose up, disappeared suddenly because of the turning of the tide so quickly. And then there were ICQ, MySpace, Facebook and Twitter that opened up another avenue. The resurrection of Apple with its iTunes, iPod, iPhone and iPad happened within a span of 12 years and the world has come into the future where “Terminator” looks like an old talkies movie! Now I can see how out-dated it feels to watch it and realize how far we have come. And now we are talking about the PC and the laptop! I could not have imagined this ten years ago. It is simply amazing to see these incredible transitions! My point is this. Terminator might be an old movie. But it is still entertaining to watch. It still gets rented out and watched. Cult following develops for everything – Star Trek has its cult followers. Then there are the Lord of the Rings worshippers, Star Wars fanatics, Pirate fans, Harry Potter generation and so on. Likewise there are cults in the tech-world – Microsoft lovers, Apple fanbois, Google geeks and Facebook addicts. Because of them, the products, no matter how out-dated and irrelevant they are, will be around. Their market share will change. Who thought Nokia and Blackberry would be fighting for their lives like this! Today it is the tablet. Tomorrow, who knows what is ahead? I am eagerly looking forward to that article in the future where there is a discussion about the post-mobile era. It will happen because there was a time I could not think beyond the CRTs.

    1. Mauryan, I love your posts, but the “wall of text” you sometimes post is too hard to read.

      Please use paragraph breaks. Please!

      1. Sorry about it! I will cut my writings along paragraphs from here on. It is just a flow of thoughts that I type uninterrupted. And I forget to go through it and edit it before posting it. Bad habit. I will change.

        1. Thanks. At least you didn’t post in ALL CAPS. Then it would’ve been like reading the Vietnam War Memorial Wall.

  4. The PC has an advantage over tablets in terms of power but that advantage comes from two things: (1) physical size and power source – you can put more, large, hotter and more energy hungry components in it; and (2) the fact that the PC market was a large growth market that could supply the kind of capital needed for making cutting-edge microprocessors. The problem here is that 2 is no longer true and there will likely come a point in the future when it is no longer cost effective to even create the kind of components that require 1. What PCs did to the supercomputer and specialised workstation market (think SGI), tablets may do to the professional-level PC market. At some point in the future, x86 will cease to be competitive as Intel’s revenues contract along with the waning PC market, and workstations/servers will have to borrow from the mobile world (we’re already seeing this in the server market).

    There’s also the issue that a device meeting the needs of a power user doesn’t have to be standalone, it can just as easily be an accessory. If I need to process 4K video I might be better off buying a video processing hub, rather than a standalone workstation, for example. Keyboards have already become accessories; large auxiliary displays, storage and auxiliary processors can go the same way. So it’s not obvious to me that there will even be a niche market for the PC form factor. The combination of a larger tablet, a larger display and a box with a bunch of specialised CPUs and GPUs in it could replace the workstation. In situations where you’re not moving large files around but need more computational power, this can even be put on the cloud. In situations where you do need to share large files it could still work on a local network, so it might make more sense to call it a server.

    There are a lot of assumptions being made in the idea that the PC market could become a “niche” market, not just those I mention above, but the fact that the market is so closely tied to the fates of Microsoft and Intel and the Windows and x86 platforms. These platforms are unlikely to remain competitive in a contracting market and what replaces them is extremely unlikely to conform to the PC form factor. Microsoft or Intel, at some point, might simply cut their losses; these are not companies willing to support niche markets, particularly when they’re both locked out of the mainstream. Microsoft in particular will probably focus more on services; Intel might go all in on ARM. So I expect the laptop to out and out die and the desktop to be unbundled as described above.

    1. I doubt Intel will ever abandon x86. They hung onto Itanium for far too long.

      They are desperate to become a player in the mobile markets because the PC market is shrinking, but their most profitable products are still for the server and workstation markets, which are still growing.

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