Diffusion of Personal Computing Devices, 1977-2021

Diffusion of Personal Computing Devices 1977 2020

Source: Pre 2000 data compiled by H. Dediu and J. Reiner. Recent data from Gartner, Inc.

Personal computing devices, enabling users to execute customizable programs, became available in the late 1970s and mass-market products by the mid-1980s. By 2021, more than 341.1 million PC platform devices were being sold around the world, a decline from the 352.7 million units sold in 2012 (peak year). The diffusion of personal computing undertook three distinct phases:

  • The setting of standards. By the late 1970s, several different platforms using different standards and operating systems were being introduced. Interoperability was nearly nonexistent, implying that each platform required its own hardware and software. The main contenders were Apple (Apple II), Commodore (64 and Amiga), Atari (400/800), and Tandy (TRS-80). The introduction of the IBM PC in 1981 marked the downfall of competing standards with the adoption of the MSDOS operating system from which the PC platform would evolve. In 1984 MacOS, the first graphical user interface available for a home computer, would carve a niche on which the Macintosh platform would evolve. By the late 1980s, non-PC and MacOS devices had disappeared from the market.
  • Performance, interface, and interconnectivity. From 1985, the two prevailing platforms, with the PC dominating (selling 8 to 10 times more platforms than Macintosh), undertook a massive diffusion in the consumer and corporate markets. Performance in processing, memory, and storage capacity grew exponentially (Moore’s law) while costs declined. Graphical user interfaces became the standard (e.g. Windows), enabling users to operate complex applications quickly. By the late 1990s, the development of the Internet opened an entirely new range of services to personal computing devices, such as telecommunications (e.g. email), e-commerce, information access, and entertainment. Portable computing devices (laptops) also became widely available.
  • Mobile computing. By 2005, cellular phones, which emerged as mass-market products in the mid-1990s, saw their integration with features that were previously only available to desktop and laptop computers or specialized devices such as digital cameras or global positioning system receivers. The cellular phone evolved from being solely a telecommunication device (with basic features such as an address book, a clock, and a calendar) to a true mobile personal computing device offering a wide range of customizable features (apps). Symbian (Nokia), Blackberry, iPhone, and Android were the most salient platforms. Their massive diffusion was helped by the ubiquity of wireless networks in developed and developing countries alike. Similar to what happened in the early stages of commercial computing, two mobile telephone platforms dominated (Android and iPhone), while Symbian and Blackberry were discontinued as platforms in 2014 and 2015, respectively. In 2013, Android device sales exceeded 1 billion units, making this platform the most dominant personal computing device in the world. With the introduction of the iPad in 2010, tablet personal portable computing devices became available, which created new niches (e.g. ebooks) that are more complementing than competing with conventional personal computing devices such as the PC. The latter reached peak market diffusion with sales stabilizing and new competitors introducing tablet products.