Gartner: 2011 is year of the smartphone, not tablet

The 2010s are rapidly shaping up to be like the 1990s, but with smartphones replacing PCs as the objects of want. This week's Mobile World Congress buzzed with excitement that felt like Comdex 1995. The next day's hottest device announcement eclipsed the day's before. Single-core processor today is obsolete to tomorrow's dual-core, which is outdated a day later by quad-core -- or that's how it feels.

Things are changing so fast, some manufacturers can only keep up by announcing the next big thing. Yesterday, veteran Mac journalist Jim Dalrymple chided Research in Motion: "Shut up and ship." He observed that RIM talks lots about new tablets -- "that's three generations of PlayBook tablets announced in five months, and we still haven't seen a single product make it to market." The excitement about mobile devices and pace that faster phones are shipping and new applications releasing are among the many reasons that last week I asserted: "The PC era is over." To be clear: Change of eras doesn't mean the end of the PC just its rapidly decreasing relevance before cloud-connected devices.

Today, Gartner put stats behind the mobile frenzy, claiming that US consumers are more likely to buy a smartphone than any other device. "Continued low retail pricing and widespread adoption of applications like Web browsing, e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, GPS and games will continue to stimulate consumer demand," said Hugues de la Vergne, Gartner principal research analyst, in a statement. Faster smartphone adoption will change the market, "which will shift from the more technically astute tech savants toward less tech-savvy comfortable conformists. Issues such as ease of use will become even more important in 2011"

While geeks can't chatter enough about Android vs iOS vs other mobile operating systems, other buyers won't really care. "First-time smartphone buyers may not be familiar with the range of operating systems and the different versions of those OSes," de la Vergne asserted.

Gartner used two data points to make its claim about consumers' buying preferences: Its smartphone and PC forecasts and a December 2010 survey. The analyst firm expects 95 million smartphone sales this year, up from 67 million in 2010. By comparison, PC shipments are expected to be 50.9 million, up from 45.6 million. However, it should be noted that IDC and Gartner PC forecasts have proved unreliable of late, with shipments falling below expectations. So that nearly 51 million number could prove to be optimistic.

The survey assesses buying intent, which I can say having worked as an analyst can be hugely unreliable measure. What people say they will do often represents what they want to do. Often they do something different. With that qualification, Gartner's ranking of gadgets Americans say they will buy in 2011, in order of intent:

1. Smartphone

2. Laptop

3. Desktop PC

4. Mobile handset (other than smartphone)

5. E-book reader

6. Media tablet

No. 6 is worth calling out, given the incredible hype around media tablets -- and the nearly 90 devices announced for 2011. Certainly Apple had a great three quarters with iPad, shipping more than 14 million devices and generating about $10 billion in revenue. If Gartner's survey is even remotely reflective of buying intentions, PC manufacturers don't have that much to fear from tablet competition, and the tablet market is already overcrowded -- too many entrants for the possible amount of demand in 2011.

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