December 4, 2012 at 11:17 am

Computers Are Over… Or Are They?

meeker wintel ios android chart

Venturebeat and Business Insider posted an amazing chart last night (above) showing the rise and fall of various personal computing platforms from 1975 to 2012. See all that blue area at the top — the stuff that’s so prevalent, it could almost be the sky? That represents shipments of Windows desktops and laptops, and its shrinkage is a big reason Microsoft is trying to reinvent itself with Surface, Windows Phone, and Windows RT.

The above chart — from  Kleiner Perkins Caulfield and Byers partner Mary Meeker’s “2012 Internet Trends Year-End Update” — shows Apple’s device shipments as holding relatively steady over the past few years, which comes as a surprise, given all of its iPad and iPhone shipments.

That green area propping it up, and eating into Microsoft’s Wintel share, represents Android phones and tablets. (Apple fan-people should take consolation in the fact that although Android ships more hardware, other crucial numbers like overall web and app usage remain skewed towards iOS.)

Generally speaking, what’s happening here is that “dumbed down” devices running iOS and Android are eating up the marketshare of higher-powered, general computing machines — the things we have typically thought of as computers. These are the boxes that run processor-intensive apps, can run lots of software at the same time, have big screens and hardware input devices (mouse, keyboard), and can do complicated stuff like letting a virtual synthesizer in one program record to a multitrack audio recorder in another program.

Some have worried that all of these consumer-grade portable devices will turn the computing populace into sheep, couch potatoes, or other undesireables, because they’re designed for consuming entertainment rather than creating original stuff — the latter, of course, being the dream of those who took part in the first part of the digital revolution, the one that was about cyper-utopia, freedom to create, and the disintermediation of barriers between creators and consumers.

However, as iOS and Android devices replace “computers,” they are also turning into them.

Part of this is due to Moore’s Law — processors get faster, and storage-per-cubic-inch increases. That gives these smaller devices more firepower each year, obviously. But we’re also seeing architectural evidence that app-running devices will learn how to do everything computers can do.

The first iPhones couldn’t even multitask. Now you can run loads of apps, all at the same time, switching between then using the app bar at the bottom (double tap your home button if you’ve never seen this before). And in the area of music apps in particular, which concern us here at, we’ve seen plenty evidence of the growing sophistication of Android and especially iOS, as the evolve abilities heretofore restricted to bulkier Wintel and Mac boxes.

First, music apps developed the ability to send MIDI between each other, just like music software on a “computer.” Then developers got together and figured out how to enable audio to be copied-and-pasted between music apps. And yesterday, Audiobus announced that its system for routing audio between apps in real time, as it is played, will launch December 10.

We don’t watch the entire app world as closely as we do music apps, but if the same thing is happening in other areas, as we suspect it is, these so-called “dumbed down” mobile computing environments will soon be able to do whatever your computer does — especially as more of computing shifts to the cloud. What about the hardware? Where are the mouse and keyboard going? In the cases where they are still needed, perhaps those will be hardware add-ons.

Their sizes will be smaller, their screens will be touch-sensitive, but these will be computers. The bigger difference: who is making them. It used to be Microsoft’s partners, and now it is Google’s partners, and they’re basically the same companies (Samsung, HP, and whoever else wants to use Android). Apple’s still there, having largely masterminded this transition, but Google is pushing Microsoft out of the picture.

Maybe that’s why Microsoft’s Surface ads are everywhere you look these days.

Here’s Meeker’s full presentation: