Contrarian Thinking: Mobile vs. PC in Emerging Markets

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Essays

I was struck by this slide (below) of Henry Blodget’s presentation on Future of Digital. The slide is meant to demonstrate the incredible growth of smartphones and tablets, and to show that smart TVs and wearables are still young, but will soon be showing promise. But I’m more interested in the PC part of this equation. You’ll notice that the number of PC shipments per year has stayed relatively flat, and that smartphones and tablets account for the majority of Apple’s revenue, so the PC must be dead, et cetera, et cetera. The Wall Street Journal reported breathlessly that PC sales were in a tailspin last year, pointing to the 8% dip in PC sales growth. But look again: the number of PC shipments per year has stayed relatively flat, seeing modest growth.

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The conclusion there seems to be: people are still buying PCs, but people who are buying their first connected device are starting with a smartphone (or tablet). And with global internet penetration still very low, of course smartphones and tablets are seeing runaway growth. But the fact that PC shipments are remaining steady suggests something to me: the PC isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

Think about it. You certainly use your computer to access the internet less now than you did before 2007, or 2010. But you still use it for MS Excel/Google Docs, for email, for photo editing and graphic design, for bug fixing and programming: for “work”. And what percentage of your colleagues and family members don’t have a computer, or rarely use one? I bet that number’s very, very low. The reason people in emerging markets are starting with a smartphone and a tablet as their first device isn’t because the PC is dead. It’s simply because they can’t afford one. But as soon as they are doing a certain amount of knowledge work, they will spend time on one. It’s way, way too early to write off the personal computer.

There have been promising innovations in netbooks, which are getting cheaper, though still (wrongly) trashing functionality in the process. The mobile arms race is bringing costs of sensors and processors way down in mobile, but in PCs. I’m willing to bet that this will bring forth a surprising surge in PC growth, once manufacturers get their costs down far enough. And until global office culture changes radically or improved gesture-controlled interfaces become ubiquitous, I think that PC is here to stay.

* There are some fascinating stealth projects currently working on this problem.

** I’m probably wrong here, so please feel free to tell me I am!

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