We should no longer be confused about the notion of the “post-PC era:” Apple’s shocking iOS device sales numbers for its first fiscal quarter are just further proof that tablets and smartphones are the personal-computing products taking over our hearts and wallets.
The iPhone and the iPad were already the class of their respective market segments, but Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) managed to pull off something amazing during the last quarter of 2011, more than doubling shipments of both products en route to a spectacular quarter. Apple sold 37 million iPhones and 15 million iPads, accounting for 72 percent of its $46 billion in revenue.
But Apple CEO Tim Cook made an interesting comparison during the conference call following Apple’s earnings release, pointing out that according to IDC more tablets were sold in the U.S. during the fourth quarter than desktop PCs. Now, desktop PC sales have been on a downward trend for a very long time, even prior to the release of the iPhone, so it’s not completely shocking that tablets would have closed the gap this quickly.
Still, consider this: HP (NYSE: HPQ), the world’s leading PC maker, sold 15 million PCs worldwide during the fourth quarter using IDC’s numbers, and 62 million for the year. Apple sold 15 million iPads in the fourth quarter and 40.5 million in calendar 2011. It sold 37 million iPhones during the fourth quarter and 93 million in calendar 2011.
Overall, PC sales were basically flat during what is usually the strongest quarter of the year for the industry. And even though PC makers also had to contend with the effects of widespread flooding in Thailand, where many hard-disk drives are manufactured, that flat growth was in line with what IDC had expected well before the rains came.
A PC is no longer an aspirational purchase; it’s an appliance that people don’t feel compelled to upgrade nearly as often as they did five years ago, when the traditional three-year upgrade cycle drove purchases. Tablets and smartphones aren’t replacing PCs, they’re just making it possible for people to wring extra years out of their older PCs by giving them lightweight access to just-enough computing power while on the move or while in the living room.
And Apple is clearly the company leading this charge. It might be hard for Apple in 2012 to duplicate such stunning growth in iPhone sales, given the pent-up demand ahead of the iPhone 4S launch, but there is still plenty of room for Apple to grow both the overall market and its own market share as smartphones cross the 50 percent penetration rate in developed economies and accelerate in developing ones.
Some Apple-friendly commentators want market research companies to consider the iPad equivalent to a PC as they count boxes, which would make Apple’s share of the traditional PC market much larger: Apple would have easily led the PC market using that methodology in the fourth quarter.
But this is the essence of the post-PC era that former Apple CEO Steve Jobs liked to evangelize. These new mobile devices are not PCs: they’re not being purchased like PCs and they’re not being used like PCs. They are defining a new category of personal computing that is pretty different from that defined by the personal computer, and they should be considered separately: why lump the computer of the future in with the computers of the past?
The grandparents of the PC era–Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) and Intel–are well aware of this shift, no matter what they say in public. Intel (NSDQ: INTC) has struggled for years to get its processors into phones and tablets but will finally ship some products in 2012, and, as longtime Microsoft watcher Mary Jo Foley pointed out yesterday, Microsoft is spending an awful lot of time promoting its upcoming Windows 8 operating system on tablets.
Five years after the launch of the iPhone, Apple is dominating the market for this new type of computer. It sold 52 million iOS devices in the fourth quarter and has plenty of room to grow, especially considering that more radical remakes of the iPhone and the iPad are likely in store during 2012.
And if Android’s lead is really shrinking, the basic rule that has governed mobile development for the last several years will remain true. If you’re trying to build a business around mobile computing, you still have to start with iOS.