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

Apple's rise shows mobile "overtaking" the PC

By , Network World
January 30, 2012 07:08 AM ET

Network World - 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.

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