A post-PC data "parable" reflects on rise of the iPad and mobility's meaning

A post-PC data "parable" reflects on rise of the iPad and mobility's meaning

The exponential rise of mobile platforms represents the eclipse of the PC era, but it will be a gradual eclipse.

The challenge for corporate IT groups is "how do you harness exponential growth, where lifetimes [of a software platform] are measured in years," says Horace Dediu, a consultant, writer and founder of Asymco, an online "evolving experiment in collaborative and peer reviewed analysis."

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Dediu spoke this week at MacIT, part of the Macworld|iWorld conference, where he uses an alpha version data visualization/presentation app on an iPad to describe what he titles "Pre-PC to Post-PC: a Parable."

Parables by their nature are not definitive, though their constituent elements are highly concrete. Dediu starts with raw numbers, using the interactive presentation app to gradually unfold them over time, and reveal relationships. He successively shows yearly unit sales of personal computer platforms, for each key vendor, from their advent in 1975, pinning them to successive cultural moments by marking each year of a new platform introduction with an emblematic movie poster. For 1975 it was "Jaws."

The evolving graphical displays show new PC products being introduced, but their volumes, even added together, remain stubbornly small, in tens of thousands of units. The data shows a flock of new entrants, and different platforms. By 1979, the year-old Apple II is in 4th place, behind among others Atari. It is startling to see that for the better part of a decade, one of the leading, and often dominant, brands was the Commodore 64, a name completely unknown to many of today's 20-somethings.

It's not until 1989, that the rising Wintel PC breaks out in sales, soaring above its rivals who then begin their decline. Dediu's data shows the following decade is rightly called the PC Era, with PC shipments reaching 100 million units in 1999.

But in 2001, Nokia introduced the first mobile phone based on the Symbian OS, about the time that Dediu, with an IT background, joined Nokia as an industry analyst and business development manager. What was notable, he says, is the first year shipments of Symbian phones: nearly 1 million units.

Two years later, Research in Motion launches and likewise begins a fast, high-volume growth. In 2005, Microsoft introduces Windows Phone and other phone platforms appear as well. During this period, as PC sales keep growing, with Mac sales trailing far behind, the genuinely new mobile platforms are garnering much larger initial sales than personal computers saw.

The iPhone is introduced in mid-2007. The first year sales, Dediu shows, are 10 million units. In 2008, the mobile platforms are growing at exponential rates, especially compared to growth for PCs and Macs. Android is released in 2009, and follows the iPhone pattern: starting at high volumes and growing quickly. The iPad in 2010 follows a similar pattern.

So what do the patterns of data mean? Dediu is characteristically modest in drawing conclusions. He notes there is some data that shows the PC market has plateaued, but the question of whether tablets, and the iPad in particular, are causing the slowdown is still unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable at the moment.

Given the exponential growth in mobile, he asks his IT audience, how can such growth be harnessed?

When he throws open the session to questions, it almost seems he catches his audience by surprise: there's been no dramatic conclusions drawn, no call to arms, no posturing. Just the patterns traced by the data.

Someone asks about the total iOS market, with iPod touch, iPhone and iPad. "You can see mobile overthrowing the PC," he says. In 2012, Apple sold close to 100 million iOS units, or nearly half of the PC market by itself. There are at least 5 billion mobile phone users globally and only a fraction of them are smartphone users, he notes.

The Apple volumes point to something important. The growth comes from Apple's success in solving the problems of consumers, Dediu notes, suggesting a direction for corporate IT. "Apple redefines what their problems are," he says. "For IT, understand what users' issues are."

Dediu argues that the PC's rise actually was fueled by IT: it was companies that had the money to buy the relatively expensive devices, along with spreadsheets and other business applications to realize big gains in productivity. "IBM and Microsoft won in the PC era by focusing on the enterprise," he says.

But about 2000, the DVD become a PC component, opening the door to new uses: entertainment. "This was the first [PC] innovation that caused IT to say 'no!'" Dedius says. Since then, consumers have been the ones to adopt and exploit a wide range of innovations, increasing in mobile, which only then begin to trickle into IT.

The winner of the PC era, Microsoft "could not come up with a solution that works for a lot of users," Dediu says.

Apple's iPad is at the forefront of this next stage of exponential mobile growth. Dediu reminded his audience that Apple CEO Tim Cook has admitted that iPads are taking some sales from the Mac, but many more from Windows PCs. "I think Apple believes the iPad will replace the Mac," he says, even though he foresees the Mac continuing to adapt for some time, and continuing to take sales from Wintel machines.

Asked about Android, Dediu describes it a lower cost alternative to iOS. But he sees two big problems. One is how anyone will make a profit from it, something made even more remote by the increased spending by Google and its OEMs to defend Android from patent infringement attacks, notably by Apple.

The second problem is Android's failure so far to create a "value-adding network." Instead, the platform is fragmenting, and being adapted to fit the differing and often conflicting business models of the incumbent OEMs and cellular operators. "Apple's target is changing the future of computing," Dediu says. Android's target is maximizing search for Google. Those are two very different goals, he says.

As time runs out, the questioning has to end, yet the questions themselves remain, and so does the data that triggered them. Dediu's parable, a story grounded in data, seems less about definitive conclusions and more about the importance of a kind of humility or modesty in the face of facts as we create and share and evolve our own stories.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for "Network World."Twitter: john_cox@nww.comBlog RSS feed:

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