US Consumers are replacing PCs with smartphones and tablets for common tasks

Make no mistake, smartphones and tablets are disrupting typical PC behavior. The real question: Will changing behavior slow PC sales? It's among the questions to ask, following the release earlier today of NPD report "Evolving Technology Trends: PC Activities on Non-PC Devices."

According to NPD, about 35 percent of US smartphone owners use email less on their PC now. Similarly, about 30 percent of US tablet owners say they email and browse the Internet less on the PC; 28 percent don't use PC social networking services as much. Welcome to the post-PC era, or at least it's beginnings.

NPD's report follows findings released by Gartner yesterday: US consumers are more likely to buy a smartphone than any other device this year. NPD surveyed 2,400 US consumers in December about their non-PC device habits. A stunning 83 percent email on their smartphones, while 76 percent browse the Internet. NPD found high satisfaction levels, which were greater for tablets than smartphones. Respectively, 67 percent and 59 percent for email and 60 percent and 49 percent for social networking.

Well, call me stupid -- and many of you already do in comments. "About 50 percent more 18-34 year olds own a tablet than over 55 year olds -- despite the high price that normally scares away the younger consumer," Stephen Baker, NPD's vice president of industry analysis told me, today. In March 2010, I pegged the device as particularly suitable for the 55 and older set, which it might still be (I just want to give commenters consistently digging at my posts something legitimate to gripe about).

It seems to me that with tablets' popularity among younger US consumers and how many Americans are shifting common Internet tasks to cloud-connected mobile devices from personal computers, there should be an impact on PC sales. According to Gartner and IDC, tablets clearly cannibalized PC sales during fourth quarter 2010. Gartner 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. So I asked Baker about cannibalization.

Q: Based on activities, are consumers replacing behavior -- smartphone and tablets for PCs -- and will that cannibalize sales?

A: "Eventually it will. But for PC companies there is still action in upgrades from old models -- you are still going to have PCs -- and from desktops to notebooks. Also these are positioned as companion devices, so not totally positioned as a replacement."

Q: Understood, but what about replacement purchase -- choosing smartphone or tablet over new PC? Meaning: Companion enough that people keep that old PC longer rather than upgrading now?

A: "Nope. You are going to have all three. Each has a role to play. Initially [consumers] might keep PC longer, but after a time refresh cycle will take hold -- and I think tablets long term will look more like PCs for refresh than phones because the vast majority will be with no [carrier] contract."

Call me cynical and skeptical, but I'm convinced that changing behavior will cause many smartphone buyers, and many more tablet adopters, to delay PC upgrades. That mobile device may be PC companion but behaviorally it's a replacement. Want to bet what are the top activities consumers do on their PCs? Can you say email, Web browsing and social networking? All three categories are already displacing PC behavior, according to NPD's survey. To be clear: I'm talking about consumers and not businesses.

What about you? Did you or will you soon put off a PC purchase for a smartphone or tablet? Please answer in comments, or email joewilcox at gmail dot com.

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