Shipments of Tablets Now More Than Half Those of PCs

An iPad mini, right, and 4th generation iPad models during the first day of sales at an Apple Inc. store in San Francisco Photograph by Noah Berger/Bloomberg

Do you consider a tablet to be a personal computer? If you do, you’ll see why the latest tablet shipment figures perfectly illustrate the current shift in computing devices: IDC estimates that 52.5 million tablets shipped in the final quarter of 2012. That compares with 89.8 million personal computers shipped during the same quarter, again courtesy of IDC.

I compared the same device shipment numbers for the third quarter back in November, suggesting that nearly 1 in 4 computers sold then were tablets during that time. Of course, I was lumping tablets and PCs together for that comparison; an arguable aggregation since tablets can’t do everything a typical PC can do.

But for many, particularly consumers, today’s tablets do just enough to be the next computing purchase while those few legacy computing activities simply keep the old desktop or laptop on life support for another few years.

And in my mind, this is the challenge that PC makers are facing: How to compete with lower-priced devices that are more portable, typically run longer on a single battery charge, and handle the most common computing tasks.

That’s why I’m less interested in the question of “who has the most tablet market share?” It’s still Apple at 43.6 percent, if you’re interested, with Samsung and Asus—thanks to the Google Nexus 7—growing faster than all others:

Why don’t I care about the market share numbers between vendors? Because that’s not the bigger story. The more important point is which companies are in this chart and which companies aren’t. Three computer makers are in the top five while two retailers and content providers round out the list.

Missing are the names of the longtime computer makers that either didn’t see the trend, lost their focus, are late to the game, or simply decided to pass on tablets; think Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, Acer, and Sony. They missed out on the rise of smartphones, which now outsell PCs by several factors, and they’re missing out on the tablet market, too, even though they’re now making some attempts at relevancy here.

This market snapshot also says something about the operating system that has held the top spot for decades: Windows. Yes, there are still hundreds of millions of Windows users on the planet. There will be for years to come. But if you lump together the shipments of PCs and tablets—admittedly a stretch, but bear with me—you get a telling number: About a third of these devices don’t run Windows; they’re using iOS or Android.

That’s far different from the years of Windows market domination at 90-plus-percent. And I see no reason why the growth of non-Windows tablets will stop. I wouldn’t be surprised if, by this time next year, non-Windows tablets actually outsell Windows computers.

All of a sudden, Microsoft’s presence in this overall computing market is in the minority, something the world hasn’t experienced in more than 20 years or so. Again, that’s why the vendor share in tablets isn’t the big story; there’s a bigger theme of legacy operating systems compared with newer, more nimble platforms.

We can debate if a tablet should be compared to a PC all day long: Yes, you could say it’s just a different form factor and shouldn’t be considered equal to a PC. But you can’t debate two simple facts: The PC market is stagnating, if not receding, and sales of new computing form factors are growing.

It’s that simple. The definition and use case of a “personal computer” has changed, just like it did when laptops overtook desktops. And those who stuck with their old definition of computing are stuck missing out on this next wave of how people will interact with and use computers, which in this case are tablets.

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