On January 9 2007 Apple chief executive Steve Jobs stood on a stage and showed the world the iPhone.
It seemed important at the time. Yet nobody knew just how significant this would turn out to be.
Thanks to the iPhone Apple became the world’s most valuable company. It defined our times.
It isn’t hyperbole to divide the history of personal technology into eras before and after iPhone.
End of the consumer PC
Apple’s iPhone did something else. It killed the consumer PC market. This didn’t happen overnight and it hasn’t finished yet. But it happened.
It may seem remarkable to talk about the death of consumer PCs when one sees the massed ranks of glowing Apple logos one often sees on laptop lids. But, while those computers may be fun, they are mainly used for work or education. They are not mere consumer computers.
PC sales didn’t stop immediately. It took until four years after the first iPhone appeared for sales to peak.
From business to consumer and back again
In 2011 the world bought 380 million personal computers. According to IDC, consumers purchased 54 per cent, a little over half the total. The rest went to businesses and government.
Since then PC sales numbers have dropped. Or to put it more accurately; they have dropped off a cliff. By 2015 the total market had fallen to around 275 million units a year. Consumer PC sales fell faster than business computer sales. IDC put the consumer share of the total sold in 2015 at around 49 per cent.
In round numbers that means consumer PC sales dropped by around one-third from roughly 200 million to 130 million. That fall took four years.
The end of the world as we know it
It is not the end of the PC story. It is the end of a chapter.
Analysts like IDC and Gartner expect PC sales will continue to fall over time. They think that, eventually, business computer sales will stabilise.
For now there is still a need for workers to use desktops and laptops to keep the wheels of industry spinning. Long term that market is also at risk.
Nobody makes a similar optimistic forecast about consumer PCs. There is no happy ending in sight. The end point may or may not be where zero consumer PCs are sold. If we stabilise at a point before that one, the number will almost certainly be a tiny fraction of the 200 million units sold in 2011.
Almost overnight PCs are less relevant to people’s away-from-work lives.
IDC runs a programme called ConsumerScape 360 to track how people use technology. In 2012 about 90 per cent of PC owners would check email on their computers each day. By 2015 the number had dropped to 65 per cent.
Out of favour
If you need to check work mail away from the workplace you no longer have to use a home PC. You can do it just as efficiently on a phone or a tablet.
In fact more efficiently. With a phone or tablet you can reply while on a bus, in a train or while sitting in a pub. PCs are not that flexible.
IDC found similar declines in other popular computing activities. It turns out that when it comes to reading mail, checking news, web browsing and social media, using the PC is often far too much trouble. We now have more convenient devices close to hand all the time.
Planet of the phones
Today, most people are more likely to go to their phone first when doing anything online.
It’s not just Apple iPhones. People also use Android phones from brands like Samsung, Huawei and Sony. They are also using tablets like the iPad, which is, in effect, more phone than PC. But all these devices can trace their roots back to the moment Steve Jobs announced the first iPhone.
That was the turning point.
Rocking all over the world
In developed countries this represents a major change in technology usage patterns. It’s an even bigger revolution in much of the developing world: phones are the only computers most people in those places have ever known.
Modern smartphones outsell personal computers four to one. Despite the name they are more personal and, sometimes, better computers. They know far more about you than your PC does.
Phones are ubiquitous. About half the global adult population owns a phone. By the end of this decade that number will reach 80 per cent.
Replacing PCs the Microsoft way
Even if people buy new consumer PCs, they won’t buy as many or buy as often as in the past. There are tasks which don’t work well on phones and tablets, but the list gets shorter every year. Soon it will be negligible.
Some of those consumer PC replacements will be devices like the Microsoft Surface Pro, which is as much tablet as PC.
After ignoring the march of progress, Microsoft has responded to the change with a dramatic change of focus. It is one company, possibly the only company other than Apple, with the ability to build a tightly coupled combination of hardware, software and services. It comes as no surprise that companies like Samsung and Huawei are now making Surface-like devices.
Microsoft has also responded by bowing to the inevitable and making great versions of Office available to phone and tablet users.
No consumer PC rebound in sight
There’s little question the consumer PC is now in a death spiral. As sales numbers decline, the demand for apps and services declines. Developers will put less investment into satisfying user needs.
What was a virtuous circle fuelling the rise of consumer computing during the 30 years until 2011 has become a vicious circle on the down slope.
It’s hard to see how consumer PCs can rebound from this. At best there will be a long, slow slide into irrelevance. Expect to see PC makers consolidate further, with some brands disappearing. Expect to see hand-wringing at more angst at PC dependent companies like Intel.
Consumer PCs are not dead yet, but it is now only a matter of time. Customers have moved on.
Games are one consumer area where the PC still beats phones and tablets hands down. Even the best iOS or Android games are unsatisfactory compared to PC games. And don’t get me started on the horror of “in-game payments”. ↩︎