As a signpost on the road to the so-called Post-PC Era we’ve been hearing about for so many years, this one is pretty hard to argue with: As of this year, personal computers no longer consume the majority of the world’s memory chip supply.
And while it may not come as a terrible surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to personal technology trends during the last few years, there’s nothing like a cold, hard number to make the point crystal clear.
Word of this tipping point came quietly in the form of a press release from the market research firm IHS (the same group formerly known as iSuppli). The moment came during the second quarter of 2012. For the first time in a generation, according to the firm’s reckoning, PCs did not consume the the majority of commodity memory chips, also known as DRAM (pronounced “DEE-ram”).
During that period, PCs accounted for the consumption of 49 percent of DRAM produced around the world, down from 50.2 percent in the first quarter of the year. The share of these chips going into PCs — both desktop and notebooks — has been hovering at or near 55 percent since early 2008, IHS says.
As shifts in market share statistics go, it at first seems insignificant until you consider the wider sweep of memory chips in the history of the modern technology industry. PCs have consumed the majority of memory chips since sometime in the 1980s. IHS couldn’t say when exactly when the first personal computers started showing up in appreciable numbers in homes and businesses.
And where are all those memory chips going? Tablets and smartphones for starters. IHS says that phones consumed more than 13 percent percent of memory chips manufactured, and it expects that figure to grow to nearly 20 percent by the end of this year. Tablets — including the iPad — consumed only 2.7 percent of the world’s memory chip supply. The remaining 35 percent, which IHS classifies as “other,” includes servers, professional workstations, and presumably specialized applications like supercomputers and embedded systems.
And given their rates of growth, IHS expects phones and tablets combined to consume about 27 percent of the world’s memory by 2013, while by that time PCs will consume less than 43 percent, making the decline, in the firm’s estimation, irreversible.
For PC-making companies, notably Hewlett-Packard, Dell and Lenovo, the shift marks the beginning of an overall decline in the importance of PCs in the overall chip supply chain. Memory chip makers like Samsung, Hynix and Micron will focus increasingly on winning the business of phone and tablet makers and over time concern themselves less with the needs of PC makers. “PCs are no longer generating the kind of growth and overwhelming market size that can singlehandedly drive demand, pricing and technology trends in some of the major technology businesses,” is how IHS analyst Clifford Leimbach put it.
Depending on when you start counting it, took about two decades for the PC industry to sell its first billion units, a milepost that the research firm Gartner pegged to the summer of 2002. Judging by its annual global sales figure since then, it took about five years to sell the second billion, and about three more years to sell the third billion.
Last year, PC makers shipped about 353 million machines, an increase of about one-half of one percent, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see the industry finish the year with a slight decline in shipments year-over-year. No less a barometer of the PC industry than Intel lowered its sales guidance for the third quarter of this year, citing weak demand. It is currently in the midst of a campaign to both re-ignite market interest in PCs and attack the market for phones and tablets.
Compare the PC to smartphones. IHS expects people around the world to buy 655 million smart phones this year, which would amount to nearly twice the number of PCs sold last year and almost three times the number of notebook PCs that will sell this year.
And as for tablets, look no further than the iPad: For the last four quarters reported (Q4 2011 through Q3 2012), Apple has sold 55.4 million iPads, which amounts to only 5 million fewer than all the PCs that Gartner says HP sold in 2011.
So perhaps now the academic debates about where the Post-PC Era begins can come to a close. I remember the first buzz about it back in 2000 with consumer electronics makers like Sony — jealous of being left out of the PC feeding frenzy brought on by the first wave of the consumer Internet craze — tried to sell “Internet devices” that looked like PCs and served up the Web and email without costing quite as much as one. They didn’t take.
PDAs like the Palm Pilot and Microsoft’s Pocket PCs made some progress, priming us for living with handheld devices that stored data we needed close at hand. The Blackberry and the Treo became the first of what we would call “smartphones.”
But the PC always held sway as the home base of any digital person’s daily life. Now, it’s entirely possible, though not yet common, to get through modern life without one. Some people have sought to “go paperless” in their day-to-day lives by relying on tablets and smartphones for the things they used to print to paper. I wonder now if there may soon be a trend of going “PC-less.” It’s not gone yet, but it is going.