PCs May Be in Trouble, but Personal-Computing Devices Are Booming

New report shows shipments of traditional PCs plunging while sales of newfangled devices boom

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In 1998, when PC sales were exploding, Compaq CEO Eckhard Pfeiffer packed the 50 millionth Compaq PC for shipment

When research firms report on current and future sales of PCs these days, you can be sure that the numbers won’t be pretty. And sure enough, Gartner is saying it expects worldwide PC shipments to drop from 341 million units in 2012 to 305 million this year. It expects them to tumble further to 289 million next year.

But the company’s press release on the news manages to put a positive spin on its estimates, because it’s also reporting shipment numbers for other sorts of devices people use to perform computing and communications tasks — “ultramobiles,” tablets and mobile phones. Those are all thriving: Gartner says overall shipments of desktops, notebooks, ultramobiles, tablets and phones are up 5.9% this year, and it predicts further growth next year.

Say, what’s an ultramobile? Gartner defines the category as including “Chromebooks, thin and light clamshell designs, and slate and hybrid devices running Windows 8.” It’s a bit of a catchall, and apparently includes Windows-based Ultrabooks; if the research firm had lumped those in with desktop and notebook PCs, it would have made PC sales look less dire. Also, take note that Gartner still considers “slates” and tablets to be two different types of computing devices, which seems quaint to me at this point.

I’m sure that the company gave lots of thought to how it divvied up the market, but we’ve reached a point where it’s just too blurry for neat categorization. (Me, I might vote for four groups: desktop computers, mobile computers with integrated keyboards, tablets and phones.)

Still, if you’re in the industry — as most of the people who pay Gartner for data are — drawing these distinctions probably still feels terribly important, especially since so many companies remain pigeonholed in one subcategory or another, even if they’ve tried to enter others. (Only Apple and Samsung are leaders in conventional PCs, ultramobiles, tablets and phones.) For consumers, though, it seems pointless to obsess over Gartner’s breakouts. The bottom line is that we’re doing more personal computing than ever — and we get to do it on a variety of useful devices, running the operating systems of our choice. It’s a far, far happier situation than back in the 1990s, when it looked like the Windows PC might render every competitor permanently irrelevant.

Side note: Gartner’s new numbers are similar to ones it reported back in April. The big difference is that the new report stops at 2014, while the April one also included projections for 2017, such as desktop and notebook sales of 271,612,000 units.

I’m pleased that the company doesn’t seem to be discussing 2017 this time around. The only thing we know for sure about the next four years is that there’s a high probability that something unexpected will happen — or maybe several somethings — to render 2013’s estimates obsolete. Consider the evidence: Gartner’s current estimates of tablet shipments in 2013 are nearly double what they were when it forecast them in October 2010. And in May 2010, the company thought that netbooks, which it called “mini-notebooks,” would still be a major category in 2014. Today, the netbook market is so moribund that Gartner doesn’t bother to mention it.

I’m happy saying I don’t have a clue where we’ll end up a few years from now; the world would be a better place if research firms cheerfully acknowledged the same.