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Phones Set to Surpass PCs August 12, 2010

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing, Software platforms.

I came of age in the dawn of the PC era.  My first computer, bought with a loan from the Hanscom Federal Credit Union, was an original 128K Mac (I still have it, and it still boots).  I can’t count the number of computers I’ve owned since then, many of which I assembled myself.  The number of PCs (and to a lesser extent Macs) that I’ve used easily numbers in the hundreds.

To any unbiased observer (not you, Steve Ballmer), it’s pretty clear that the PC era as I knew it is drawing to a close.  That’s not to say that PCs won’t have a role, and a big one, in our lives.  I won’t be writing the next great novel without one, for example.  But the energy and innovation has now shifted to other devices, such as the phone, tablet (dare I say it?), e-reader, and other form factors.

Tim Bray offers some generalizations as to the number of phones sold, and which handset and OS vendors are seemingly leading the pack in new unit sales.

Seth Weintraub of Fortune takes it one step further, finding and publishing more-or-less hard numbers on the installed base and monthly shipments of not only smartphones (and their operating systems), but also in comparison to desktop OS shipments.  The gist of his comparison was that smartphone sales will surpass PC sales in the near future.  Another interesting statistic is that the total number of phone subscribers worldwide is over half of the world population.

Granted, at one level it’s a comparison of apples to oranges.  We don’t use smartphones for the same activities as PCs, and in general smartphones are less expensive than PCs.  But I’m not talking about head-to-head comparisons, but rather where the energy is going, and it is leaving PCs for phones and other devices.  It won’t kill the PC industry, but clearly the amount of growth and innovation we’ve seen over the last thirty years is coming to an end.

In general, this is good for the industry.  We need something new to sink our teeth into every once in a while, and the young and talented are finding their own platform for creativity.

One caution is that it’s becoming increasingly clear that the revenue model driving this growth and innovation is advertising, not handset sales or wireless subscriptions.  Google already has advertising on Android, and Apple is rapidly gearing up for it on iPhone.

I am not a fan of this kind of advertising, but think of this as the generation after print magazines and newspapers.  That has some interesting implications for the future of publishing that I’ll explore in a later post.



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