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Milestone: more smartphones than PCs sold in 2011

Milestone: more smartphones than PCs sold in 2011

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'In the space of a few years, smart phones have grown from being a niche product segment at the high-end of the mobile phone market to becoming a truly mass-market proposition.'

It's finally happened, what we've suspected intuitively. Now we have the data. The year 2011 marked the first time more smartphones than PCs were sold.

That's the word from market research firm Canalys, which just released figures that show that total annual global shipments of smartphones exceeded those of client PCs (including pads) for the first time.

Vendors shipped close to 489 million smartphones in 2011, compared to 415 million PCs. Smartphone shipments increased by 63% over the previous year, compared to 15% growth in PC shipments.

Canalys includes pad or tablet computers in its PC category calculation, and this was the growth area in PCs. Pad shipments grew by 274% over the past year. Pads accounted for 15% of all client PC shipments.  Desktops grew by only two percent over the past year, and notebooks by seven percent.

As Chris Jones, Canalys VP and principal analyst, put it: “Smart phone shipments overtaking those of client PCs should be seen as a significant milestone. In the space of a few years, smart phones have grown from being a niche product segment at the high-end of the mobile phone market to becoming a truly mass-market proposition. The greater availability of smart phones at lower price points has helped tremendously, but there has been a driving trend of increasing consumer appetite for Internet browsing, content consumption and engaging with apps and services on mobile devices.”

No surprise, Apple’s impressive end to the year resulted in it becoming the leading smart phone and client PC vendor in Q4 2011, with shipments of 37.0 million iPhones, 15.4 million iPads and 5.2 million Macs.

However, everything has its limits, and Canalys says that the growth in smartphone shipments won't keep accelerating forever. The firm expects to see smart phone market growth slow in 2012 as vendors exercise greater cost control and discipline, and put more focus on profitability. Vendors will focus on higher-end offerings.

And, it should be noted that the PC market is still seeing growth. It's a matter of form factor -- there are many business activities that require a larger screen and a full keyboard to function. You may be reading this post on your smartphone. But how comfortable would it be for a customer service representative to be accessing accounts and answering queries from a smartphone?  How effective would it be for engineers or architects to be developing schematics on a smartphone?

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure