Beyond the PC and Tablet

After yet another year of falling sales, it now seems certain that PCs and tablets are quickly being pushed aside in favor of phablets, wearables, and an exciting future based around ambient computing.

By Zeid Nasser

The future of the personal computer looks bleaker than ever, as the latest figures from leading market research firms show that the fourth quarter of last year witnessed the largest decline ever in the PC market.

Surprisingly, along with PCs, the sales of tablets are also on the slide. Once considered the main PC-replacement product, tablets are falling victim to phablets and the trend for larger-screened smartphones in general. It’s a time of change, and possibly upheaval, in the world of personal computers and devices.

Regarding the PC, International Data Corp (IDC) figures show that year-on-year shipments across the globe dropped 10.6 percent to 71.9 million units in the fourth quarter of 2015. Figures by Gartner, another research firm, also showed a similar trend of a fifth straight quarter of decline for global PC shipments, but reported a higher figure of 75.7 million units sold, and therefore a smaller decline of 8.3 percent. Total shipments for 2015 were 288.7 million units. Gartner is also expecting a ‘soft recovery’ in 2016, followed by a stronger recovery in 2017 when the next PC upgrade cycle begins.

But there’s a flaw in the logic of comparing sales of PCs to those of other devices. After all, PCs have much more longevity. Users will not upgrade every year; or even every other year. Tablets nowadays are suffering from a similar issue. Also, with regards to PCs, the Windows 10 upgrade in 2015 did not require higher specification device. So, users can enjoy a new experience without buying a new PC.

Looking at IDC’s sales number for the PC vendors, Lenovo remained on top with a 21.4 percent market share in the fourth quarter (up from 20 percent the previous year). HP came in second place with almost the same share as last year, 19.9 percent. Dell came third with 14.1 percent, while Asus is tied with Apple for fourth position with a 7.9 percent market share. Apple Macintosh sales actually rose by 5.7 million shipments in the fourth quarter. But Apple, as usual, is cannibalizing itself and everyone else, with iPhone sales reaching 300 million in 2015, thereby overtaking Windows PC shipments. So it would appear that the smartphone is the new PC, and that’s not including tablet sales.

Taking a look at the turmoil in the tablet market, this is a product category which didn’t exist before 2010, when Apple launched the first iPad, and rose fast. But, now it also seems to be fading fast. IDC said the worldwide tablet market recorded lower shipments for the fourth straight quarter with 48.7 million units shipped in the third quarter of 2015. At least PCs did not begin to die till they celebrated over 25 years of existence.

To clarify, research firms define PCs to be desktops, notebooks, and ultramobile premium PCs. So, the PC market doesn’t encompass the new and growing product category of tablet-hybrids, which are effectively laptops with detachable displays. Their sales grew in the fourth quarter by around 6 percent. Overall growth last year was 3 percent. This is considerable.

So is this another new segment to perhaps inherit part of the PC and tablet markets? Apple thought so when it launched its 12.9-inch iPad Pro, running iOS, into this segment. It sold 2.5 million units by the end of 2015. The Microsoft Surface Pro has been a low-key success in this segment too for more than two years, now running Windows 10 which is the OS of choice for the next wave of manufacturers like Samsung, which just released its Galaxy TabPro S.

With Windows and a PC-like screen size and keyboard, can we assume that these devices resemble the future of personal computing? Why should any device be the sole custodian of such a ubiquitous need as personal computing? Personal computing functionality lives on in our smartphones, smart cars, smartwatches (and wearbales in general) in addition to the many other ‘things’ that will make up the Internet of Things.

At some point, we will be automatically and seamlessly plugged into networks, without awareness of the devices handling our access and our private information. This may sound far-fetched now, but we’re already on course towards a future best described by this quote from Pew Research as “a global, immersive, invisible, ambient networked computing environment built through the continued proliferation of smart sensors, cameras, software, databases, and massive data centers in a world-spanning information fabric.”