The one event that destroyed the PC industry

The one event that destroyed the PC industry

Summary: While many factors played a part in the implosion of PC sales, there's no doubt as to what catalyzed the catastrophe – the launch of the iPad.


Just as with the demise of the dinosaurs, many theories have been put forward as to why the PC industry ground to a sudden halt the way it did. Some blamed consumer boredom with Windows, while other pointed the finger at an overall flaccid economy, while pointed to the ethereal 'post-PC' shift. Others weaved more elaborate models revolving around Moore's law or even changing aesthetics.

While these factors may have played a part in the implosion of PC sales, a chart published by analyst firm Asymco leaves us with no doubt as to what catalyzed the catastrophe – the iPad.

Since its launch in April 2010, worldwide PC shipments have been in freefall, with year-on-year percentage growth that was once in strong double-digit territory now having nosedived quite alarmingly into negative double-digit terrain. 

(Source: Asymco)

So, while there's little doubt that we've shifted from an era dominated by the PC to one ruled by post-PC devices, this shift clearly coincides with the introduction of the iPad.

Tablets have, in one form or another, been around for decades. Microsoft has tried – and failed – on several occasions to take them mainstream. But it was Apple's iPad – with that name that many thought would doom it to failure – which took the idea of a tablet computer and transformed it into a marketable, successful product.

This, in turn, paved the way for Android-powered slates, and then devices powered by Windows RT and Windows 8.

What didn't help following the launch of the iPad was the way that Microsoft, along with its hardware partners, started furiously churning out expansive, poor quality tablets that OEMs could only convince consumers to buy by offering them at firesale prices. This confusion allowed the iPad to gain ground on the PC, and cemented its position as a game changer.

What's interesting are the suggestions that the post-PC industry could also be headed for stagnation, as the high-end smartphone market becomes crowded. If this turns out to be the case, then beleaguered PC firms scrabbling for new markets could find themselves leaping headlong into another imploding market.

Topics: iPad, PCs

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  • Repeat after me one thousand times...

    ...correlation does not equal causality.
    • A thousand or ten thousand

      It won't stop people from making this same logical error.

      That being said, while correlation does not equal causality, it does *imply* causality...indeed, it is the *only* thing that implies causality.

      Thus, while we cannot say from this graph or any other that the iPad is responsible for the decline in PC sales, it probably is, at least in part.
      x I'm tc
      • Actually, "(not P) or Q" is equivalent to "if P, then Q."

        "That being said, while correlation does not equal causality, it does *imply* causality...indeed, it is the *only* thing that implies causality."

        Actually, "(not P) or Q" is logically equivalent to "if P then Q."

        Basically, P cannot possibly be true when Q is false. The truth table for logical implication is set up that way in formal logic.

        Thus, the best way to prove causality is to look at all of the cases where the effect is false and prove that the cause can never be true in those cases.

        That's the strongest way to prove causality.
        • That applies if talking about sole causality.

          Contributing causality is a different beast. Correlation can easily imply partial causality in comparisons of closely related data. In this case, sales of mobile computing devices rose quickly at the same time desktop computing devices declined quickly. Since we're talking about computing devices purchased by consumers in both cases, the correlation implies at least partial causality.

          Think of it another way. Some are saying the PC declined solely due to the economy. This is easily shown to be a false conclusion by pointing out that iPad sales (which are often more expensive than consumer desktops) skyrocketed during exactly the same period of economic downturn. So, consumers didn't stop buying because of the economy. They just bought something else.
          • BillDem: "consumers didn't stop buying because of the economy"

            Many consumers (and organizations) did stop buying desktops/laptops because of the economy and that's one important reason why the Windows XP market share remains so large. They are using their desktop/laptop systems for a longer time period than previously. Are you implying that all of these consumers (and organizations) also purchased iPads?

            Explaining the state of desktop/laptop PC (note: tablets are PCs, with or without a keyboard) sales is a multivariate problem.
            Rabid Howler Monkey
          • People stop buying new PC's because their old ones are still good enough

            In the past we had to buy a new PC every time a new Windows version came out, because the hardware couldn't cope any more. Nowadays our 3-5 years old PC's are still powerful enough to run XP, Vista, 7 or 8. So why should we buy new PC's?
          • Conversely...

            Now that Win 8 works better with a touch screen, is it worth the expense? Or should I just stick with my old hardware, and Win 7 ?
          • Stick with proven technology

            Stick with your existing hardware with Windows-7. You know what you have and it works. When you have money to throw away, then consider moving to Windows-8 and its touch-centric UI.

            I bought my 15" laptop in 2006 running Vista. I replaced the 100 GB hard drive with a 256 GB solid state drive for $165 on eBay. The computer is twice as fast now as when I bought it and the start-up is about 5 times as fast. I was able to make the switch by doing an image copy which avoided the necessity of reinstalling tons of software. I would not replace my computer unless there were "essential to have" capabilities that my present computer does not have. Also, I am pretty sure some of my software would not transition to the latest version of Windows, and that would be a major headache.
            Dan Thomas
          • Also

            If someone has $500 to spend on a new PC, seeing that the new PC offerings are not much different than their existing PC, that person could spend the $500 for an iPad... leaving them with no cash for another PC as well.

            I believe this was an very clever strategy by Apple, that for quite long time remained undetected. Until it was too late, that is.
          • thoughts

            "Contributing causality is a different beast."

            Not so much - what we are talking about are different possibilities for Q (the effect). Maybe A caused Q, maybe B.

            Maybe the economy, maybe market saturation, maybe there's fewer reasons to upgrade (How much software really pushes a PC to its limits anymore?). Honestly: It's really a combination of all of the above. Putting one reason above all the others probably doesn't do the entire situation any justice.

            And yes, timing can be coincidental. Overall, it's not always the best indicator, especially when the products are not mutually exclusive (buying a tablet does not prevent one from buying a PC). It's an arguable point, and I don't consider it to be a strong implication.
      • or the Windows 7 effect

        This chart does not go far enough back but you can see that PC sales were slow leading up to the launch or Windows 7 when it sky rocketed and stayed very high for several quarters. Those PCs were well suited for the OS, unlike Vista PCs, and (since that when I bought my last PC) are probably still very capable. The iPad has certainly played a part, but I think the stability of Windows 7 on hardware that is still decent could also be a cause.
    • Identifying the reasoning is false ...

      ... does not imply the conclusion is false.

      The fact that tablets existed before the iPad suggests the conclusion may be true.

      The fact that MSFT and Windows 8 / Surface are also having a hard time ... also suggests that there is something in the iPad.
    • By itself, no, but...

      By itself correlation does not prove causality, no.

      If there had been a spike in t-shirt sales just as PC sales were stagnating, it would be ridiculous to assume that people stopped buying PCs because they were spending more money on t-shirts (not impossible, mind you, but so improbable as to be ridiculous).

      But when were talking about two products with broadly similar uses, if the introduction and rising popularity of item X coincides with a decline in sales and popularity of product Y, then one is not without justification in assuming causality.

      Now, as for this article, I think the author is giving the iPad a bit more credit than it deserves, simply because I think that smartphones have contributed at least as much, perhaps even more, to the decline in traditional PC sales. But again, these are devices with broadly overlapping functions and in many ways the iPad is just a big ol' iPhone.
      • Ridiculous...

        Unless the rise in iPad sales have close to a 1:1 ratio with the decline in PC sales (which I seriously doubt) then it is ridiculous to suggest that the iPad has much of anything to do with the delcine in PC sales.

        Some quick research shows that (according to Gartner) PC sales totaled 93 Million for the US and 346.2 Million for the world in 2010 and 95.4 Million for the US and 355.2 Million for the world. The figures include desktop PCs, mobile PCs, and servers using the Intel x86 processor architecture and therefor do not include tablets.

        So MS shipments have declined quite a bit according to the stats quoted in this article but overall PC sales went up in the same time frame according to Gartner and those sales did not include tablets. Either the data in one or both studies is seriously flawed or there is some other factor that accounts for the slump in windows deployments at work.
    • You guys

      and those who commented on this piece all know each. Right?
    • Re: correlation does not equal causality

      So what?
  • and...

    You figured out that all by yourself?

    The iPad prove one thing. Most don't need a full feature pc. A tablet is more than enough to take and respond to emails, checkout a web page, watch a video or listen to some music. That is what most users will end up doing on a computer. You don't need linux for tht either.
    • Hence Chromebooks!

      As gbouchard99 points out, most people don't know what to do with features other than email, web browsing, music and videos. The Chromebooks offer all that for much less than an iPad as well as a physical keyboard in a similar slim format. Hence the growing popularity of the Chromebooks.
      • While I could agree with you, there's one caveat

        The Chromebook is essentially like all other netbooks--it forces you to set the bloomin' thing down to use it.