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The 'post-PC era' might be closer than we think

PC market share numbers for the first quarter of 2011 are down 3.2 percent. The reason? Natural disasters, high gas prices, and yes, media tablets that deliver PC-like functions.

Tablets' success show people aren't buying PCs based on specs anymore, according to IDC. Pictured, from foreground to background, Apple iPad, Galaxy Tab, Dell Streak, and iPod Touch.
Tablets' success show people aren't buying PCs based on specs anymore, according to IDC. Pictured, from foreground to background, Apple iPad, Galaxy Tab, Dell Streak, and iPod Touch. Donald Bell/CNET

Whether you agree with the phrasing or not, Steve Jobs' assertion that we're in the "post-PC era" might not be far from the truth.

The data on the latest PC market share for the first quarter of 2011 is out today and it is not good for the sector. PC shipments were down year-over-year for the first time in almost two years. In other words, the bounce back that PC makers saw after the recession? It's officially over.

IDC says global PC shipments shrank 3.2 percent from a year ago, worse than the already meager 1.5 percent growth the firm had predicted for the quarter. All told, 80.6 million PCs were shipped last quarter, but even the top sellers of PCs saw negative growth.

In terms of worldwide tallies, Hewlett-Packard's shipments were down 2.8 percent, Dell 1.8 percent, and Acer, 15.8 percent. Lenovo and Toshiba bucked the trend, seeing shipments actually grow 16.3 percent and 3.8 percent, respectively.

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In the U.S., while HP, Dell, and Acer shipments contracted--in Acer's case, down a disastrous 42 percent--Toshiba and Apple shipments were up 10.6 and 9.8 percent, respectively.

Since last June, Jobs has been weaving a narrative about us being in the "post-PC era." Unsurprisingly, his brash and some might say self-serving assessment of the state of the PC market rankled his competitors and critics since this era was coinciding with the marketing of the iPad.

Well, not only has his iPad done gangbusters sales and inspired a whole industry of copycats, the data seems now to be on his side too.

According to IDC, several factors (Japan disaster, unrest in the Middle East, a spike in fuel prices) are causing a PC market slump in the U.S. and Western Europe, but there's also this: "'Good-enough computing' has become a firm reality, exemplified first by mini notebooks and now media tablets."

In other words, people aren't making buying decisions based solely on specs anymore. Sure, people will still buy computers--post-PC doesn't mean we won't use PCs anymore--but their primacy is being diminished by devices that will do many of the basic PC tasks well: Web browsing, sending e-mail, checking Facebook, shopping online, getting directions, reading the news, etc.

"The iPad shows you don't have to have the best hardware. It's about marrying the software and hardware, and about what people can do with it," said Jay Chou, senior analyst for IDC. "I think that will be key in sustaining more PC growth."

It's a mantra Jobs has been repeating for years with his user-friendly, design-heavy take on technology. But he's not the only one who sees it that way now. Take, for example, HP, the perennial leader of worldwide PC sales, buying Palm last year and planning to use its proprietary software on mobile devices and eventually PCs.

"I'm not saying iPad and media tablets are going to eat PCs for lunch. This is what many people feared about Netbooks earlier," said Chou. "But we are seeing that hardware alone is not enough. Hardware vendors have to start thinking about software."

With limited budgets and inflationary pressure on gas and food prices, people are "tired" of buying new computers based on a 30-percent faster Intel processor alone, said Chou. "That's not quite enough anymore to justify spending and refereshing."

Even so, people are still going to buy PCs. Just not at the growth rates that PC makers have been used to, especially in established mature regions like North America and Western Europe. Emerging regions like Latin America and Asia still have people buying their first PC, so things will eventually pick up. When will that be? IDC says though the bad news will continue for the PC industry through next quarter, things might start looking up in the latter half of the year.