Shipments of smartphones, tablets and other app-enabled devices will overtake PCs shipments in the next 18 months, an event that may signify the end of the PC-centric era, market research firm IDC said.
It may be seen as an historic shift, but it is one that tells more about the development of a new market, mobile and tablet computing, than the decline of an older one, the PC. Shipments of personal computers will continue to increase even as they are surpassed by other devices.
IDC said worldwide shipments this year of app-enabled devices, which include smartphones and media tablets, such as the iPad, will reach 284 million. In 2011, makers will ship 377 million of these devices, and in 2012, the number will reach 462 million shipments, exceeding PC shipments. One shipment equals one device.
For PCs, IDC is forecasting 356 million PC shipments this year, and 402 million in 2011. In 2012, there will be 448 million PC shipments.
Non-PC devices are "not replacing the PC - that's a key point - but [they are] expanding the market," said Frank Gens, chief analyst at IDC.
Gens sees similarities between the start of the PC market and what's going on today with smartphones and media tablets.
The IBM personal computer arrived in 1981 but it wasn't until 1986 that vendors stopped debating the future of the PC and rushed toward it, Gens said. A major turning point for the PC was Microsoft 's initial public offering in 1986, a company quickly embraced by Wall Street.
The PC era resulted in the emergence of new companies and the loss of older ones that didn't adapt to the market change. Today, vendors, through acquisitions and other moves, are positioning themselves for the new smartphone and tablet market. "The psychology is we can't blow it this time," Gens said.
IDC's forecast is also built on worldwide IT spending that is expected to grow, overall, by 5.7% in 2011 to $1.6 trillion. But Gens said the forecast could change if, for instance, Europe's economic problems worsen and the U.S. does not reduce unemployment or see some recovery in the housing market.
Cloud computing will also expand. Public cloud services will grow by 30% in 2011, rising to $28.7 billion worldwide. IDC has also started to forecast private cloud services, which were estimated at $13 billion in 2011, an increase of 33%.