State of the Personal Computing Market, Q2 2014

State of the Personal Computing Market, Q2 2014

PC sales stabilize as Android sales surge on the device side

With the first half of 2014 already in the rear-view mirror, industry analysts from Gartner and IDC have provided their respective estimates for PC sales in the past quarter and some predictions for all personal computing devices in the near future. So let's take a look at the data and see how PC sales—and the broader personal computing industry—is doing as we move forward.

In the past, I used to hold off on this kind of analysis until Apple released its quarterly results and, correspondingly, the official Mac unit sales, a statistic that would provide us with the firm's PC market share for that time period. That's no longer an important measure, as mobile devices, mostly based on Android, are the new measuring stick. We can assume Mac sales are roughly what they've long been: Roughly 5-7 percent globally and probably somewhere in the 20 percent range in the US.

Total PC sales in the second quarter of 2014 were 75 million units. (As always, I obtained this figure by averaging the numbers provided by Gartner and IDC.) That is roughly flat with the 75.7 million PCs that PC makers sold in the same quarter a year ago. As such, that is actually pretty good news: Previously, the PC market was expected to contract for all of 2014, albeit at a much smaller rate than the previous two years, before heading towards modest growth in 2015.

Explaining the "turnaround"—I don't want to get too excited here, but let's run with it—IDC said that both business PC replacements (often of machines still running the unsupported Windows XP) and "renewed consumer interest" were responsible, and Gartner largely agreed. (Gartner noted that the PC user base, while smaller than before, was now "more engaged," which is nice to hear.)

Too, tablet sales are no longer the fast growth engine they once were. When the PC market started its collapse two years ago, exploding sales of (full-sized) tablets combined with dwindling sales of low-cost (i.e. netbook) laptops—two events that were of course related, though it took a while for that to become obvious—were credited. But as this differential continued over the past couple of years, the tablet market started to lean heavily towards less expensive mini-tablets, and this midstream phenomenon—now largely over—carried the tablet/PC imbalance perhaps longer than would have otherwise been possible.

Today, tablet sales are slowing dramatically as well. That tablets have hit the maturity end of the scale so quickly—remember, the iPad is just four years old—is very interesting to me. PC sales grew and grew for decades before being slowed down by tablets. But tablets have been brought low in just four years, in part because of hybrid devices. On the small side, phablets are taking away sales from mini-tablets, and on the bigger side, hybrid PCs are taking away sales from full-sized tablets.

So while Gartner expects PC sales to hit about 308 million units in calendar year 2014, tablets sales will hit 256 million units this year. And tablet sales may exceed PC sales in 2015 as was previously expected, but not by the same wide margin: Gartner says that hardware makers will sell 321 million tablets next year, compared to 317 million PCs. That's basically neck-and-neck.

The makeup of tablet sales is also changing. In mature markets, we're seeing more full-sized tablet sales than we did over the past few years, though consumers are only upgrading every 2-3 years instead of every 1-2 years as they did before (and as they do with smart phones). Meanwhile, mini-tablets and phablets are especially popular in cost-conscious emerging markets.

Smart phone growth is of course still off the charts. Gartner expects device makers to deliver 1.9 billion mobile phones (not smart phones) to customers in calendar year 2014. And it expects smart phones to take an ever-larger share of the overall market for mobile phones: 66 percent in 2014 and then 89 percent in 2015. That means that device makers will sell 1.14 billion smart phones in 2014.

Looking at all of these personal computing devices combined, we see the following: 48 percent of all devices—this includes non-smart phone mobile phones so it's a bit skewed—sold this year will be running Android. 13.7 percent will be running Windows. And 11.1 percent will be running iOS/Mac (obviously mostly iOS). Next year, each of these platforms grows, too, with Android (53 percent) again in first place, followed again by Windows (14.4 percent) and iOS/Mac (11.6 percent). Clearly, Android is growing much faster and at the expense of Windows and Apple.

Gartner curiously calls out Windows Phone, noting that it expects "Windows phones to exhibit strong growth from a low base in 2014." It projects that Windows Phone will reach a 10 percent market share in the smart phone market by 2018, up from 4 percent in 2014.

ABI Research—I couldn't find data for this from Gartner or IDC—claims that device makers will sell 3.3 million Chromebooks in 2014. That's good for exactly one percent (1%) of the market. "That's nothing to sneeze at," one particularly partisan commentator noted. I won't embarrass him by naming names, as I'm too busy sneezing. But if that's nothing to sneeze at, neither are Windows Phone sales: Using Gartner's numbers, device makers will sell 45.6 million Windows Phone handsets in 2014.

I've spent a lot of time hand-wringing over Microsoft's roll in this new world going forward, but looking at the numbers, it's pretty clear that the only real threat here is Android. Google's mobile OS isn't just leading iOS/Mac and Windows by a wide margin, it's still increasing its lead. That's astonishing, and recent initiatives like Android Wear and Android Auto suggest that Google's isn't going to slow down anytime soon. Could that explain Microsoft's rumored Android-based Lumia devices and the Nokia X lineup? Maybe. (It certainly explains why Google is integrating Android with Chrome OS.) But instead of describing the future technology world as one that is heterogeneous, it's probably more accurate to say that the future is just Android with a little bit of a few other things. In other words, much like the PC industry was 15 years ago, when Windows alone ruled the world.

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