Data, not voice, is now driving telecoms

Stephen Pritchard

This week could mark the beginning of the end for two pieces of business technology: the phone, and the PC.

Market research from IDC suggests that smartphones are now outselling PCs for the first time ever. In the last quarter of 2010, PC makers shipped 92.1 million units, against 100.9 million smartphones.

The desktop PC has already largely given way to the laptop for business users; laptop computer sales overtook those of their desktop counterparts as long ago as 2003 in the US, according to one set of figures (although most analysts date the permanent shift to late 2008).

But now we are seeing another transition, as business users leave their laptops at the office and switch to a tablet or a smartphone for use on the road.

PC market studies do not all count tablets in their numbers. Another piece of research, this time from Gartner and covering the UK PC market, found that the total PC market shrank by 4.4 per cent year on year, not including tablet sales. It might be too early to say for sure that tablets are cannibalising PC sales - and some manufacturers, most notably Apple, have grown market share in both categories but the trend does seem to be heading that way.

Those mobile devices, especially smartphones and tablets with embedded 3G, are putting their own demands on communications networks. A study by PRTM, a management consultancy, suggests that 3G and 4G data traffic is now the main driver for growth in public networks. Even in the more conservative, fixed line telecoms market, it is the firms that provide high-quality, high value data networks and consumer broadband that are expected to do best.

As a result, PRTM expects to see more convergence between fixed and mobile operators, especially in developed markets. The fixed operators have the high-capacity lines the mobile companies need for their backhaul networks; the mobile operators are servicing the mobile data market, where there is the most pent-up demand.