More evidence of tablets slowly killing the PC market

So it turns out this tablet market isn’t quite a fad after all. Research firm IDC has numbers to prove it, publishing on Thursday the reported 2012 shipment figures for smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktops. It won’t surprise you that smartphones continue to be the tops among these devices, but it may surprise you that tablet shipments have nearly caught up with those of desktops.

I was joking about the tablet “fad” of course; I’ve been sharing details of the fast-growing tablet trend for some time. Over a year ago, I explained in a GigaOm Pro report why the “PC” you buy in three years won’t be a PC, but instead will likely be a tablet (subscription required).

The numbers are in

To be fair, desktops are the dinosaurs of the PC industry as laptops first enabled mobility that smartphones later extended. So maybe the fact that only 20.1 million more desktops than tablets shipped in 2012 doesn’t impress you. Instead, take a look at the laptop market, where tablet shipments approached 63.5 percent of laptop shipments last year.

IDC Connected Devices 2012

Think about that for a second. The consumer tablet market arguably started with Apple’s iPad(s aapl) in 2010. And in three years, the market is nearly equal that of desktops and is on track to surpass laptops possibly this year. All it would take is the roughly the same rate of growth for both tablets and laptops.

That’s not an unreasonable assumption and if it holds true, 229 million tablets would hit the market in 2013 while the laptop market would shrink to just under 200 million units.

What’s different? Everything.

Why is this market changing? Again, one need only look to the past to see the future. I said this last March when discussing how tablets could outsell PCs in 2013:

“Mobile devices are enabling new economies, opportunities and functions we couldn’t envision just a handful of years ago. Ignore this trend and you’re sure to think there’s no way tablets could ever outsell PCs, let alone do so within the next two years. Look at the next generation embracing tablets, however, and you start to see that the idea isn’t so far-fetched after all.”

With new application stores selling touch-optimized software on lightweight but capable hardware, tablets — and smartphones to an equal degree — are disrupting the traditional computing markets along with our ideas of what “computing” actually is. Full-featured legacy apps and devices will be around for years yet, but mobile apps are breaking features into bite-sized chunks of instant functionality at the tips of your fingers.

An alternative view of this disruption is to suggest that the PC and tablet market don’t really compete against each other. That sounds reasonable on the surface. After all, if there are tasks you need to complete requiring a desktop or a laptop, you’re likely to use one of those. But three points come to mind with that way of thinking.

Three reasons the trend will continue

First, many consumers and enterprises see tablets as more than just the toys that some dismissed them as in 2010. That’s evident by the actual figures of shipments and to a degree, sales. How often do you see a particular laptop or desktop that’s sold out or has a several week wait before delivery? Now consider the same for tablets: short supply for them could be related to production issues, of course, but strong demand is part of the equation as well.

Second, I’m seeing more and more instances of people hanging on to their older computers longer. That’s just anecdotal of course; I don’t have a massive sample size to work with. Don’t take my word for it, though. Check with your family and friends and see if the trend holds: Potential tablet purchases are likely to outweigh PC acquisitions.

Microsoft Surface ProLast, you can see the industry reaction to the tablet market. It’s undeniable; look at WinTel: Intel(s intc) is working feverishly on getting its chips to work with mobile operating systems while also reducing the power draw. Microsoft’s(s msft) Surface products? They’re Redmond’s answer to the tablet market with Surface RT trying to offer a best of both worlds between tablets and traditional desktop software such as Microsoft Office.

Again — because I know I’ll get the “PCs aren’t going anywhere” responses — the traditional PC will be around for years yet. Some computing activities just aren’t suited to the capabilities of tablet. But the problem for PC makers, Microsoft and others that figured their market was secure for ages is that the disruption already happened. Reacting now is too late because the market has already shifted in a new direction. It’s only just now that the evidence really shows the PC market won’t have a chair to sit in when the music stops playing.