The PC Market Isn’t Dying, It Just Needs to be Redefined

Earlier this year, the IDC forecasted a 1.3% decline in PC shipments, which was supposed to be followed by a gradual increase, but now the research firm has adjusted its predictions dramatically: The IDC expects the PC market to drop 7.8% this year and another 1.2% in 2014; it won’t bounce back up until 2015, and even then, it will only grow 1.4% that year.

Even when the market recovers and grows again, the IDC believes that shipments will only hit 333 million in 2017, which is actually below 2011’s high of 363 million as well as 2012’s 349 million.

Surely, part of the cause for the sagging sales has to do with the lack of popularity of Windows 8 and cautious spending among consumers and businesses alike in a still-weak economy--in fact, as the IDC notes, a lot of companies are balking at broad upgrades, instead opting to upgrade individual or small groups of devices or just failing to see a compelling need to upgrade at all. The BYOD trend, which has spread from mobile phones to tablets and PCs, is also contributing to the shipment figures.

IDC PC data

Numbers like these coupled with the rapid proliferation of mobile devices have produced much hand-wringing that the PC market is dying off, but that’s just not the case. The market is simply changing, and what a “PC” is must be redefined.

Yes, it’s true that sales of desktops will continue to dip, and it’s possible that the notebook market will drop off dramatically and permanently, but that’s not because personal computing is drying up. Instead, people are relying more than ever on their smartphones and tablets for everyday computing, such as social networking, email, Web browsing, listening to music, and even watching TV and movies.

IDC PC data

But here’s the thing: Tablets are essentially PCs, and in a sense, so are smartphones. Currently, the idea of a tablet is a mobile device with a mobile processor inside running a mobile operating system, but when you add a nice keyboard dock to a relatively powerful 10-inch tablet, doesn’t that make it a laptop?

Even if you say that Android and iOS could never be considered “full” operating systems, Windows 8 runs on a lot of tablets. Even Windows RT offers Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote in a desktop environment.

The fact is, there’s no longer a sharp distinction between computing devices; instead, computers come in every form factor from low-end 3.5-inch smartphones to massive gaming and workstation desktops. In between, there are multiple sizes of smartphones and phablets running quad-core processors, tablets with very fine keyboard docks, convertible tablet/PCs, ultramobile notebooks, standard-sized notebooks, gaming notebooks, and on and on.

And Microsoft is actually leading the way; say what you will about Windows 8 and Windows RT (it’s a fact that the Windows 8.1 update coming this year is much needed), but with them, Microsoft has completely blown up the market, in a good way, by forcefully blurring the lines between what is a “mobile” OS and what is a “desktop” OS.

Back to the issue of lagging shipments of desktops and notebooks: Some will say that even if you agree that devices such as tablets can be considered “PCs”, the fact that they’re cannibalizing desktop and notebook sales spells doom for those form factors.

IDC PC data

I would argue, first of all, that desktops aren’t going away and won’t for a long time. All most people need for most of their computing needs is a nice tablet--one with a keyboard dock is a bonus--and for all their other needs, such as serious word processing, editing photos and video, making music, gaming, and other creative or intensive endeavors, a desktop is ideal.

Desktops remain relatively inexpensive, and nothing beats having a big monitor, a nice connected speaker system, a speedy Ethernet connection, a luxurious keyboard and mouse combo, and so on. Why not roll with a tablet for your basic day-to-day computing needs and rely on a desktop for the rest? I believe more and more people, particularly families, will do just this.

I would posit, though, that because of the above, the notebook as we know it will die off somewhat--but not vanish by any means. Instead, many mobile business pros, students, and others who need powerful computing on the go will always need a good notebook with a decently-sized screen, but for most average users, a typical notebook will be both too much and not enough.

Dell XPS 12
Dell XPS 12; a metaphor for the PC market?

Essentially, as even small, mobile computing devices grow more and more powerful and desktops and notebooks enjoy reasonable prices, the PC market will become one wherein people simply buy the computing device or devices that they need. With respect to the IDC and other firms of its ilk, the idea of “desktop PC” and “mobile PC” needs to be rethought for these statistics and predictions to mean anything.

Of course, the IDC isn’t spinning the data results very much; others predicting the end of the PC are doing it for them. As Loren Loverde, Program Vice President for Worldwide Quarterly PC Trackers at IDC freely acknowledged in a press release, "As the market develops, usage patterns and devices are evolving. Many users are realizing that everyday computing, such as accessing the Web, connecting to social media, sending emails, as well as using a variety of apps, doesn't require a lot of computing power or local storage...These users have not necessarily given up on PCs as a platform for computing when a more robust environment is needed."

The IDC also predicts that tablet sales will grow an astounding 58.7% in 2013, up to 229.3 million units from 144.5 million last year. To reframe these numbers, tablet sales are blowing through the roof by 58.7% year over year, while PC sales are dipping 7.8% and then 1.2% before a modest recovery; maybe that’s not great news for manufacturers who dabble only in desktops and notebooks but not tablets, but isn’t that terrific news for the computing market overall?