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Smartphone shipments top all PCs for the first time

Tablets see most growth, but PC category overall can't compete with nearly half a billion phones shipped worldwide in 2011, according to a research firm's estimates.

Last year brought smartphones into the foreground.
Yang Li, via MIT

All the PCs in the world couldn't compete with the popularity of smartphones--literally.

IT research firm Canalys released its shipment estimates this morning for each country for the final quarter of 2011. When it tallied the annual numbers and did some quick cross-referencing it found vendors shipped 488 million smartphones in 2011, compared to 415 million client PCs during the same period. The definition of client PCs in this case includes not just laptops and desktops, but also Netbooks and "pads" or tablets, which were the fastest growing segment by far.

But even with the successful launch of the Kindle Fire and strong iPad sales worldwide, the 63 million tablets shipped in 2011 only makes a dent in the nearly half billion smartphones (487.7 million, to be exact) sent out last year.

PCs just got served...now that smartphones are being served up more often. Canalys

"Smart phone shipments overtaking those of client PCs should be seen as a significant milestone. In the space of a few years, smart phones have grown from being a niche product segment at the high-end of the mobile phone market to becoming a truly mass-market proposition," said Chris Jones, Canalys vice president and principal analyst, in an e-mailed statement.

The Canalys tally also echoes other recent reports that put Apple on top in the smartphone and PC race, with shipments of 37.0 million iPhones, 15.4 million iPads, and 5.2 million Macs in the final quarter. That iPhone figure destroys a quarterly shipment record previously held by Nokia, and Apple also took the title of top vendor by annual shipments away from Nokia for the first time after nearly doubling the number of iPhones it sent out last year.

The firm also notes that Samsung finished strong at the end of 2011 thanks to the Galaxy S II, and even without counting its Nexus phones, which Canalys categorizes as Google phones. It also makes the point that while many in the public and the tech press have had fun poo-pooing Nokia and RIM in the last year, both sentiments may be overblown. It says Nokia's new Windows Phone Lumia devices are well-designed and give reason for optimism, and there's no reason to think that RIM couldn't also pull a new trick out of its hat this year.

"There is no denying that RIM has had a tough year," said Canalys Principal Analyst Pete Cunningham. "But when you consider that it is transitioning to a new platform it has done well to increase volume while remaining profitable...However, 2012 will become even more competitive and RIM needs BlackBerry 10 devices out there to ensure it retains its status as a major player."

But Canalys warns that the global smartphone party may not continue apace in 2012, with more makers looking to move into selling more higher-end and profitable phones rather than focusing on volume and conquering the lower end of the market.