Whoa: Tablet shipments now more than half that of the PC

Do you consider a tablet to be a personal computer? If you do, you’ll see why the latest tablet shipment figures perfectly illustrate the current shift in computing devices: IDC estimates that 52.5 million tablets shipped in the final quarter of 2012. That compares to 89.8 million personal computers shipped during the same quarter, again courtesy of IDC.

Tablet sales are quickly growing, PC sales have been slowing

I compared the same device shipment numbers for the third quarter back in November, suggesting that nearly 1 in 4 computers sold then were tablets during that time. Of course, I was lumping tablets and PCs together for that comparison; an arguable aggregation since tablets can’t do everything a typical PC can do.
Child tween kid tablet 4G But for many, particularly consumers, today’s tablets do just enough to be the next computing purchase while those few legacy computing activities simply keep the old desktop or laptop on life support for another few years.
And in my mind, this is the challenge that PC makers are facing: How to compete with lower-priced devices that are more portable, typically run longer on a single battery charge and handle the most common computing tasks.
That’s why I’m less interested in the question of “who has the most tablet market share?” It’s still Apple(s aapl) at 43.6 percent, if you’re interested, with Samsung and Asus — thanks to the Google(s goog) Nexus 7 — growing faster than all others:

IDC tablet shipments in 2012Q4

Here’s the big story

Why don’t I care about the market share numbers between vendors? Because that’s not the bigger story. The more important point is which companies are in this chart and which companies aren’t. Three computer makers are in the top 5 while two retailers and content providers round out the list.

IBM PCMissing are the names of the long-time computer makers that either didn’t see the trend, lost their focus, are late to the game, or simply decided to pass on tablets; think Dell(s dell), HP (s hpq), Lenovo, Acer and Sony(s SNE). They missed out on the rise of smartphones, which now outsell PCs by several factors, and they’re missing out on the tablet market too, even though they’re now making some attempts at relevancy here.

Withering Windows?

This market snapshot also says something about the operating system that has held the top spot for decades: Windows.(s MSFT) Yes, there are still hundreds of millions of Windows users on the planet. There will be for years to come. But if you lump together the shipments of PCs and tablets — admittedly a stretch, but bear with me — you get a telling number: About a third of these devices don’t run Windows; they’re using iOS or Android.

Bluestacks brings Android to WindowsThat’s far different from the years of  Windows market domination at 90-plus-percent. And I see no reason why the growth of non-Windows tablets will stop. I wouldn’t be surprised by this time next year if non-Windows tablets actually outsell Windows computers.

All of a sudden, Microsoft’s presence in this overall computing market is in the minority; something the word hasn’t experienced in more than 20 years or so. Again, that’s why the vendor share in tablets isn’t the big story; there’s a bigger theme of legacy operating systems compared to newer, more nimble platforms.

Another big inflection point in the market

We can debate if a tablet should be compared to a PC all day long: Yes, you could say it’s just a different form factor and shouldn’t be considered equal to a PC. But you can’t debate two simple facts: The PC market is stagnating, if not receding, and sales of new computing form factors are growing.

It’s that simple. The definition and use case of a “personal computer” has changed, just like it did when laptops overtook desktops. And those who stuck with their old definition of computing are stuck missing out on this next wave of how people will interact with and use computers, which in this case are tablets.