Think PCs are dead, tablets rule the world? Here's where everything you think is wrong

Think PCs are dead, tablets rule the world? Here's where everything you think is wrong

Summary: Africa's PC market is showing there's life in the PC yet – laptops and desktops are thriving, and tablets are just surplus to requirements.

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TOPICS: Hardware, Tablets, PCs
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From his desk against the wall, Nadir Dinani, sales manager at PC World in Uganda, greets a steady stream of customers as they flock to his Kampala shop looking to buy brand-new computers. "Schools are buying lots of computers for their students, assembling networking labs," he says. "Big government institutions and NGOs have funds. Students are coming to buy for their personal use." Looking back on sales for 2013, Dinani smiles. "We know it was a good year." 

Dinani has been working in the industry since 2010, and he explains that since then, the number of PC retailers in Uganda has boomed. "There are many more. Business was good for everyone," he says.

If PC World's success is typical of computer shops across the continent, it's dramatically out of step with the rest of the world. "Computer sales in free fall," cried the headline of a Wall Street Journal article last year, describing the worst decline in the history of the PC market. Research firm Gartner reported that global shipments dropped a spine-tingling ten percent in 2013, as consumers took more and more of their computing to tablets and smartphones.

But in Africa the personal computing industry is in its heyday. Analyst firm IDC reported in January that shipments to East Africa had risen by three percent in 2013. In individual countries the numbers were much higher: Uganda saw PC shipments rise by 20.1 percent last year, and Ethiopia by a staggering 31.7 percent. Since IDC only tracks legitimate, taxable sales and does not take into account the 'grey market', the company admits that the real figures are likely to be significantly higher.

The starting point for such growth is, admittedly, quite low. As of 2012 only four percent of Ugandan households owned a computer, according to the International Telecommunication Union, and in Ethiopia the number was only slightly over two percent. Still, the numbers point not only to a growing middle class in Africa, but also to an increasing awareness of the value of a computer.

"People are starting learning the computer. Now they are growing their businesses using computers and it's helping them a lot," Dinani says. "They know now how to use a computer and how to keep reports for their small businesses in their personal PCs."

Laptops and desktops

Eager to tap into a new market, manufacturers have been racing to provide the cheapest laptops available in Africa, pushing prices lower than ever before. "I don't even know how they are surviving," says James Mutua, a research analyst at IDC East Africa. "They are pushing some products very cheap, with low margins." Toshiba offers PCs for as little as $220, he says, and cut-throat competition with Lenovo may force them to drop prices even further.

All of this attracts African customers who might not otherwise consider investing in a computer at all. But there's another factor that makes Africa stand out from the rest of the world: the conspicuous absence of the tablet. "When you check more mature markets you see tablets cannibalising the PC market," Mutua says. "In Africa, except for South Africa, you don’t see the cannibalisation."

Kenya, East Africa's biggest computer market, shipped around 450,000 PCs last year compared to only 160,000 tablets. The main reason for this, says Mutua, is that the price of tablets remains high compared to the cheapest PCs.  Plus, he says: "I think people don't realize why they need a tablet."

Consumers might not realize it yet, but telecom operators like Safaricom and Airtel are determined to open their eyes. This is because the highly portable tablets, on average, pull in a higher revenue per user when it comes to data. "People who have tablets consume more data than those who are using PCs," Mutua says. Kenya's Safaricom has a target of selling around 150,000 tablets by the end of the year, he says, and it has been deploying its extensive network of distributors to do so.

"In 2012 one of the biggest channels for PCs was telecom companies — if you would go to Orange shops, you would go to Safaricom shops and Airtel shops, you would see more PCs. But currently now they are doing more tablets and smartphones, because with telecom companies it's about data."

Another blow to the PC market came from the abrupt exit last year of Samsung, who, in the fourth quarter, stopped shipping its inexpensive PCs to East Africa, preferring to focus exclusively on high-end products. This will undoubtedly mean fewer sales in the short-term, Mutua says. "The space that they left, these other vendors, Toshiba and Lenovo, will take advantage of that to push even more of their products. So the cutthroat competition will continue." 

Cannibalisation

Since it will take time for mobile operators to change consumer spending habits, serious cannibalization of the PC market is unlikely to happen in Africa within the next three years, Mutua predicts. Operators like Safaricom are working with manufacturers to develop inexpensive tablets that can compete with the likes of Toshiba, but prices are still too high. "Until they get a variety of products retailing at around $150-200, I think that's when we might see changes," he says.

But some can already see those changes on the horizon. Dinani notes that all 375 of Uganda’s MPs were recently given iPads, and "now all the MPs are using tablets instead of computers". And it isn't only public servants who have started coveting the sleek slabs. "They keep bringing offers to attract customers in Uganda to go for a tablet instead of the big, heavy laptops," he says, pointing to a display of discounted Lenovo tablets. "It's portable and easy to use. People are showing their interest, and customers are buying and trying them."

Retailers like PC World are watching closely. The mighty PC is still king of the jungle, but its days may well be numbered.

More from Africa

Topics: Hardware, Tablets, PCs

Hilary Heuler

About Hilary Heuler

Hilary is an itinerant print and radio journalist who originally hails from Southern California. In recent years her travels have taken her to Europe, Asia and Africa, where she has reported on everything from techie innovations to antique riverboats. She is currently based in Kampala, Uganda, where she's busy swatting mosquitoes and keeping an eye on the ways technology can impact society.

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25 comments
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  • Experience

    I have a desktop, laptop and a tablet (as I presume many other people do too). I use each device differently.

    I use all three devices for blogging but there are more specific things I do on each.

    I use my laptop for light weight processing such as word processing, music and video production and some casual gaming as well as a portable media centre.

    I use my desktop for a centralised media hub - fitted with a media centre on Linux.

    I use my tablet as a browser for when I'm roaming around my house. I use my laptop as a wi-fi hotspot in Ubuntu Linux and tether my devices to it. My tablet is also fitted with the same media centre application (XBMC) on Android.

    It all depends on which device gives you the best experience for the task in hand. My tablet is better for streaming Youtube video when I'm sat in the lounge while my laptop is better for gaming and a full HD media rich experience and my desktop is pretty much a paperweight (planning to be) server which I use in replacement for a TV with XBMC.
    James Stevenson
    • Your Exactly Right

      Some also refer to this as the PC+ era, where most people use a PC (for work or home), plus other mobile devices. For example; if your working behind a desk for 8 hours per day your definitely going to use a PC with full size monitor and peripherals due to ergonomics. If anyone thinks we are in the post-PC era, they probably don't work.
      Sean Foley
      • I

        agree!
        Aristarco Palacios
    • Nicely put!

      I agree completely, you always should use "the right tool for the job". There is a lot of hocum talked about what a PC laptop is/does when compared with a phone or tablet. The PC market is currently saturated because most people already had one that is adequate for now, but did not have a smart-phone. The smart-phone market is now reaching the same saturation, however during that time many PC's just got old.
      There is a simple way to capitalise on this is to make it possible to deactivate your apps on your old PC and move them across to a new one without having to spend hundreds of hours re-installing and relicencing everything. The hard part would be to get the suppliers to agree. A good example of this is the iTunes app. You can deauthorise on one device, and then reactivate it on another using your existing account.
      techietubby
  • Tablets are not the whole solutions

    I think we are in a time where we have choices over a traditional PC desktop or laptop. But that does not mean everyone will embrace a tablet or hybrid laptop or even a smartphone.
    We now have other choices over a Mac or PC with Chromebooks. All of which expand the market while at the same time lower individual sales of one product. From the standpoint of web access numbers by device. It seems tablets have a long way to go in order to be as significant as PC's are. Much of the PC dying predictions are grossly over done. Even PC sales as slow as they are surpass all iPad sales to date in just a few months. I totally think we are using devices differently and are taken advantage of tablets being less costly and very portable. But the touch screen input has its disadvantages too. For productivity I think a PC or Mac is a proven leader over a tablet. For now I still prefer a laptop over a tablet for most work.
    JohnnyES-25227553276394558534412264934521
  • I've yet to see a tablet cannibalize a PC sale.

    "'When you check more mature markets you see tablets cannibalizing the PC market,' Mutua said."

    I've yet to see a tablet cannibalize a PC sale. Nearly everybody who buys a tablet already has a PC, so there's nothing really to cannibalize. The PC industry is a mature market, not a failing market, as far as I'm concerned.

    Gartner basically invents headlines; they're not really in the business of telling any sort of truth. I learned that a long time ago.
    CobraA1
  • Think PCs are dead, tablets rule the world? Here's where everything you thi

    We have been saying that PCs were still alive and that tablet sales were not going as well as we are being led to believe. Tablets are too limited in what they can do to be replaced by the PC.
    Loverock.Davidson
    • I think you meant ...

      "Tablets are too limited in what they can do to REPLACE the PC." I would agree with that statement.

      For every machine-cycle being SAVED by a tablet, there is a machine-cycle being CONSUMED in the cloud to support that tablet. Cloud computing is made more efficient by performing simple tasks on the tablet and using a server in the cloud (often a Windows server) to perform more complex tasks.

      The bottom line is that as more consumer tablets saturate the market, the need for more server-grade PCs will continue to grow.
      M Wagner
      • Servers are not PC's

        They're talking about replacing PC's(Personal Computers) at home, not the need for cloud servers and enterprise computers
        stanpixel
  • Tablets to replace PCs - NO WAY!

    Tablets compliment PCs but not replace them. If you have been to work from 8 to 5 like most people, chances are you're using a PC or a laptop, NOT a tablet. Developers and data analysts, among others, need their desktop. Actually, some laptops can be tablets replacements and with PCs prices so low, who is willing to dump their fast processor PCs with huge hard drive space and dual 24 inch monitors to work all day on a tablet - NO WAY!
    derbypicks
    • They're talking about the trend

      They're talking about the home PC(personal computer) market. Most people don't work all day at home (or at the office for that matter) on fast PCs with huge hard drives and dual monitors.
      PC sales have been in double digit decline for the last 8 quarters. Apple sold more iPhones, Macs, iPads and iPod Touch devices than the total number of computers sold by the entire Windows PC industry in the holiday quarter.
      stanpixel
      • re: They're talking about the trend

        Actually I work at home just like others - A "trend" that is going up.

        Home users should take advantage of cheap and fast hardware and big monitors.
        Tablets are new toys that most can do without - why would you spend $800 on an iPad where you can get a good PC/laptop or two for that money?
        derbypicks
        • re: They're talking about the trend

          Again, it doesn't matter what the reasoning is, the numbers tell the story. The vast majority of consumers do not use their computers for work, they use them for email, web surfing, storing music, and pictures. The interface and portability is what makes them attractive to consumers, and whether you think it makes sense or not, PC sales have been and are declining and mobile product sales continue to increase.
          stanpixel
  • The "western democracies" flock to the latest and greatest ...

    ... shiny new thing because they have the disposable income to buy something they really don't need. The desktop/laptop computer is considerably less expensive (based upon what it can DO) than the typical tablet. The tablet may be able to deliver 90% of the needs of the individual but if you still need the other 10% of those capabilities, the PC/laptop is still the more cost-effective (if less portable) choice.

    Rarely is anyone in the industrialized world more than a few feet away from an electrical outlet. In the rest of the world, having access to electricity is a rarity and wherever that is, that is where the computer needs to be.
    M Wagner
  • PC is alive and well

    And it will be for some more years, despite the claim its days are... numbered (ominous background music). See, the tablet is so good to consume info. Great to websurf, check some data quickly, even interact with another devices, using the tablet as a powerful remote. But as JohnnyES says in his post, touch screen input has its disadvantages too. I still haven't seen a tablet that gives the precision to work in, let's say CAD. Or DTP. They make styli with "precision" points and pressure sensitivity but what's the point? Wasn't the main attraction to a tablet the finger input? But finger input has a mayor problem, the finger is not fine-pointed and it is not invisible, so I can't see what I'm doing. Some work needs pixel-precision.
    Also, the text input needs an on-screen keyb that take a chunk from the screen. If you want to argue that you can solve that by connecting a keyb for intensive-writing, then you end up with a laptop again! Like the MS Surface. After you put one of those keyboard covers, you have a laptop. And that was not the intention, was it?
    I work with DTP, graphic design, CAD and simulation programs in a desktop because of the BIG screen, accurate mouse and pen input, real keyboard and big storage media. Laptop for some on-the-road work and tablets for web-surfing, interface to control systems, even presentations. Replacing everything with a tablet would be like replacing all my tools with that magic multi-tool from the infomercials. Just not practical at all.
    Aristarco Palacios
    • PC is alive and well

      Well said....
      Alexander Tang
    • True, but not the point

      Everything you said is true, but your computer requirements(as well as mine) are an extremely small percentage of the consumer market. They're not talking about the overnight extinction of the desktop computer, just the trend that's been going on for quite sometime now. PC sales have been in double digit decline for 8 straight quarters, while mobile devices have grown by even more.
      stanpixel
  • I love my desktop for what it does so well

    Sitting here 27" monitor on my right, wireless Kb on my lap, and mouse on the stand that the monitor highlights, there is no tablet and not laptop that will do this better.

    But out and about, there are better options for sure.
    RayInLV
    • re: I love my desktop for what it does so well

      Good point - thank you
      derbypicks
  • Well

    They dont need a tablet... I have 2 tablets and I rarely use them. They are nice if you are going to chill on the couch or walk around your house or you go on a long car ride... But really if you are the driver or you are busy... You have no use for a tablet. They don't do real work and you can do everything on a phone that you could do on a tablet, besides you still need to carry a phone so why carry 2 devices?
    Jimster480