Smartphone sales overtook PCs in 2011

Smartphone sales grew by 62% during 2011, reaching 488 million units sold and, for the first time, outselling the venerable PC in all of its forms. According to a report for Canalys, smartphones overtook PC sales, including tablets, desktops, and every kind of notebook you can think of, which only sold a combined 415 million units.

The change marks a major milestone in the history of technology, showing that more and more people are, unsurprisingly, embracing more mobile forms of computing. Even though traditional PCs are going strong and won't be disappearing any time soon (almost 209 million notebooks sold last year, 112 million desktops), they no longer represent the end all be all of computing.

The study also shows a very sharp drop in netbook sales, which was more than offset by huge growth in tablets, with only 29 million million units selling last year, a 25% decline from 2010. As Chris Jones, Canalys VP and Principal Analyst, puts it, “In 2011 we saw a fall in demand for netbooks, and slowing demand for notebooks and desktops as a direct result of rising interest in pads, but pads have had negligible impact on smartphone volumes..."

As you might expect, Apple came out as the most successful smartphone vendor, with Samsung not too far behind, although Android came in as the largest platform. It's hard to call Nokia's performance good but, as the report puts it, it does give cause for a bit of optimism. With 77 million smartphones shipped, it's down from their record high from 2010, but at least it's an improvement from Q3 of 2011. But what about Windows Phone, in particular?

Windows Phones represented only 1.2 million of Nokia's shipments in the last quarter of 2011, Canalys Senior Analyst Tim Sheppard feels good about the platform.

“They are well-designed, competitive devices that demonstrate innovation is still alive within Nokia. But the battle is not over and it has huge challenges ahead. Nokia must continue to build out its Lumia portfolio with devices tailored to address all price points and all the markets in which it aims to compete. It must hasten its transition from Symbian to Windows Phone around the world and, with Microsoft, promote and generate excitement for the platform and new products. And it must succeed in attracting more developers to build high quality, locally relevant apps.”

Last and least is RIM, which is clinging to the rim (pun not intended), but it isn't all bad. While it did make some progress with pushing its new platforms, and did manage to squeeze out a 5% growth total, the future holds even tougher battles for the former smartphone overlord.

Have no doubt that this is, in the eloquent words of Vice President Joe Biden, a 'big f%#^ing deal'. Even though skeptics might point out that there have probably been a lot more cellphones than PCs for the past ten. years or so, that's not the point. Those devices were cellphones, and even the Blackberrys of the past existed in a totally different realm, with completely different usage scenarios, than the smartphones of today.

Today's smartphones are way more than something you talk to other people with, way more than something executives take notes and check their e-mail with, and way more than a console kids play games on: they're all of that and more. In other words, they're a computer in the palm of your hand – a computer, it just so happens, that ten years ago would've weighed twenty pounds and sat on your desk, hooked up to a flickering CRT monitor.

Chart courtesy of Canalys

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