It's a smartphone world, everyone else just lives in it

Recent IDC market projections for PCs and tablets make it clearer than ever that the smartphone revolution is now the primary driver of technology adoption.

Image credit: Macworld/Serenity Caldwell

It doesn't take perfect vision to see that smartphones and mobile computing are the hottest part of the modern technology infrastructure. Open your eyes almost anywhere in the world and it's instantly obvious that mobile devices are continuing to revolutionize…well, just about everything.

Still, those of us who work in technology may sometimes be too close to the situation to fully understand how much the industry continues to tilt away from legacy PC and server platforms—and even wannabe platforms like tablets—toward building everything around the ubiquitous smartphone. We still live and work with older categories—and in many cases still rely on them to run our businesses—and so may not always see how much the global center of gravity is shifting to the devices in the palms of our hands.

See also: What it means that smartphones are the fastest growing IT sector

That's why I try to pay attention to market growth projections for the various technology categories, and the latest set of numbers from IDC paint a pretty clear picture.

Tablets vs. phablets

Let's start with the tablet forecast: In the wake of the "first year-over-year decline in worldwide tablet shipments in the fourth quarter of 2014," IDC has been forced to lower its five-year forecast to 234.5 million units shipped in 2015, up just 2.1% from 2014. And some of those tablets are really more like phablets. Jitesh Ubrani, senior research analyst for IDC's worldwide quarterly tablet tracker, wrote in the report:

"Despite the growing popularity of phablets, there still remains a portion of the market that wants to use a larger device so they can tailor their experience to the appropriate screen size… Meanwhile, an increasing number of vendors behind small tablets are reducing prices and adopting features like voice calling to entice consumers to purchase their products over competing phablets, making the dynamics of phablets vs voice-capable tablets an interesting one to watch."

If you ask me, though, small "voice-capable" tablets are phablets. And that's only the small side of the problem. On the other end, IDC is also counting 2-in-1 tablet/laptop combinations as tablets as well. (I would probably call them laptops, but whatever.)

Either way, you can't miss the fact that classic tablets are no longer where the action is.

PCs continue to shrink

If anything, PCs are in even bigger trouble. Notwithstanding Apple's announcement of a 2-pound, 12-inch MacBook Air last week, the real shrinkage in the PC market is total sales, not the size and weight of a particular device. According to IDC, PC shipments will drop by 4.9% in 2015, significantly more than the 3.3% the research group had predicted. The value of the global PC market will continue to fall as well, IDC said last week, down 0.8% to $201 billion in 2014 and a whopping 6.9% in 2015, IDC said. By 2019, the market is expected to tumble to just $175 billion. And all that is despite consumer interest in Microsoft's upcoming Windows 10 operating system.

See also: Why Apple’s new iPads are irrelevant

The culprit is the same as the one curtailing tablet growth. As IDC's press release made clear, "Competition from other devices such as phones, tablets, and wearable tech… pose an ongoing challenge to PC spending." Given the tablet market stagnation and still nascent role of wearables, though, it's easy to see what the real competition is here.

Servers hanging on

Finally, there is a bright spot in servers, where IDC recorded a third consecutive quarter of year-over-year revenue growth (up 1.9% from last year). But even here, the rise of mobile is having an effect, splitting the server market between enterprise refreshes and infrastructure investments by cloud service providers—which are increasingly all about serving smartphone apps, the Internet of Things, and other non-traditional endpoints.

"Public cloud service providers continue their hyperscale deployment march as both large and mid-sized service providers expand their data center footprints to meet growing cloud services demand, led by cloud hosting services," read an accompanying a statement by Kuba Stolarski, research manager, Enterprise Servers at IDC. "As we look forward over the next few years, server demand will continue to see aggressive hyperscale growth, as well as interrelated greenfield opportunities attached to Internet of Things (IoT) solutions."

Look at it this way: if it ain't mobile, or if it ain't serving mobile, it ain't where it's at.

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Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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