Inexorable device trends – beyond the niche, fad, and fizzle [TUPdate]

Dan Ness, Principal Analyst, MetaFacts, March 10, 2017

It can be exciting to see the hockey-stick charts, with everything up and to the right. It’s important to put the numbers into context, though, through a more grounded analysis of the active installed base. Yes, Apple’s long-climb into broader use of their triumvirate is substantial, Smartphones are quickly replacing basic cell phones, and PCs and printers persist. Their market size confirms their importance.

We, humans, are wired to notice a change. Our very eyes send more information about motion than the background. While life-saving should tigers head our way, this capability can be our undoing if we miss gradual changes, like the slithering snake in the grass creeping towards us. Watching an installed base of technology has some parallels. For some, it can seem as if nothing is really changing even while important shifts are taking place.

For over 35 years, I have tracked technology usage trends and profiles, all calibrated by watching customers through surveys such as our MetaFacts TUP/Technology User Profile. Among other truisms, I’ve seen that true technology trends aren’t sudden. Solid trends are the summation of the habits, preferences, and activities of millions of technology users. They’re inescapable, inexorable, and years in the making. Trends become truly important when they’ve spread beyond being a niche, fad, or fizzle, and reached beyond those first few early adopters.

In this analysis, I’m diving into several key broad dominant trends in technology device usage across American adults. In separate analyses, I’ll drill deeper into the next level of TUP data, revealing which market segments are making the most decisive changes.
This top-level analysis involves the core devices used by connected adults – smartphones, PCs, tablets – across the major OS families – Apple, Windows, and Android. These highlights include the areas of highest growth, largest decline, and most stability. This analysis shows the broadening acceptance of tablets, ubiquity of mobility, persistence of PCs and printers, and Apple’s trifecta box.

Highest growth in active installed base

Major technology products are being used by millions of more adults than only two years ago. Apple is ringing up the highest growth in its active user base across all the major device types: notebooks, home PCs, smartphones, and tablets. From 2014 through 2016, growth in each of these areas has been continuous and substantial.

Growing tablet usage has been supported by iPads as well as broader adoption of Google Android tablets and Microsoft Windows tablets. These two, however, have seen less growth during the last two years than Apple’s products.

Smartphone growth has continued, primarily driven by the migration of basic cell phone users. Overall mobile phone use has remained relatively flat, and the remaining users of basic cell phones are giving up their older phones at a slower pace than in the past.

Largest decline in active installed base

Pundits have declared Windows PCs dead so many times I’ve stopped counting. However, these products do rank among the top 10 for the largest decline in use, having 5.5 million fewer active adult users in 2016 than in 2014. Users of any Windows PC and any Windows home PC still number 166.3 and 148.3 million adults, respectively. Usage by these many adults isn’t likely to evaporate any time soon.

It may be no surprise that the major usage declines include users of Microsoft’s previous operating systems – Windows Vista, XP, 7, and 8. The tech-savvy may wonder why it seems to take so long for users to let go of their antiquated systems. Inertia, ennui, and ignorance still count for something among the active installed base. Also, many users are happy enough with what they have or don’t find new offerings economically justified. Within many workplaces, standardization requirements or key applications slow the adoption of new operating systems.

Similarly, early adopters or observers sequestered in technology may be puzzled to realize that a substantial number of adults regularly use basic cell phones. Declines in the number of basic cell phone users are primarily due to user migration to smartphones. The overall adoption of mobile phones is effectively flat.

Public/shared PCs and printers have been slowly declining in use. These devices owned by others, such as schools, libraries, cybercafés, or friends, have shrunk in use while users have found alternative solutions, such as using tablets or smartphones as their primary device.

The most stable number of connected adults by device type

The Twitterati may claim that important tech industry changes happen during each and every second of the day. Just as climate changes over a longer-term than momentary temperature swings, in the long view several factors have been stable.

Active social networking, PC use, and printer use each rank among the most-used categories for the greatest number of adults, and these haven’t shifted over the last three years.

Three other categories – home printers, desktop PCs, and home desktops PCs – have remained substantial and relatively stable from 2014 through 2016.

Super-users actively using many PCs are a rare but tough breed. Although not widespread, the active use of 4, 5, 6, or more PCs is a stable phenomenon. These fewer but stalwart power users don’t want to let go of their many PCs.

Shifts in number of connected adults by device type

Step back and look at this big picture. The number of connected adults has remained effectively flat from 2014 through 2016. The use of mobile devices is stable and nearly universal, as is the use of any mobile phone or PC.

Connected adults are continuing their device accumulation, growing beyond one type of connected device to actively using many, while also keeping their older technology after they’ve acquired something newer. While higher-powered notebooks may be marketed as desktop replacements, users continue to keep using their desktops in addition to notebooks.

The shifts within mobile phones, however, has been substantially about upgrading – from basic cell phones to smartphones, or by replacing one smartphone with a newer one. Net mobile phone penetration has been effectively flat.

Expanding tablet use is the most notable, having grown the most substantially from 2014 through 2016. Users have discovered an adequate subset of their regular activities which lend themselves well to use on tablets. This has helped tablets reach broader use, not only as a secondary or tertiary device, but in growing number of cases as the first device users reach for.

Number of connected adults by key device OS

Windows PCs continue to dominate the majority of connected adults. Twice as many adults – 166.3 million – actively use a Windows PC than use an Android smartphone, iPhone, or iPad.

Apple is growing its share across more than one type of device. From 2014 to 2016, the number of users has grown for Apple iPhone, iPads, and Macs. To put this into context, Apple still has quite a way to go to match the broad acceptance of Microsoft Windows PCs.
Google Android smartphones are effectively on par with Apple’s iPhones, although the momentum is stronger for Apple, with most of the growth occurring between 2015 and 2016.

In tablet usage, Apple both dominates and has the strongest growth in number of active users.

Continuity in number of adults using PCs and printers

PCs and printers have not seen notably reduced or increased market penetration. The number of adults actively using any PC, or even 2, 3, 4, or more PCs, has remained effectively constant from 2014 through 2016. Similarly, the use of printers has remained stable during this time.

In horse races, fans may place their bets based on the horse’s name, horoscope, elaborate handicapping schemes, or even the color of the jockey’s shorts. In calling tech market winners, our bet is on users. As much fun as it can be to play with the latest tech, things really become interesting when someone is compelled to adopt the technology as their own and put it to good use.

About TUPdates

These results are based on the most-recent results of the MetaFacts TUP/Technology User Profile survey, its 34th wave, with 7,334 respondents (US), as well as two previous waves.

TUPdates feature analysis of current or essential technology topics. The research results showcase the TUP/Technology User Profile study, MetaFacts’ survey of a representative sample of online adults profiling the full market’s use of technology products and services. The current wave of TUP is TUP/Technology User Profile 2020, which is TUP’s 38th annual. TUPdates may also include results from previous waves of TUP.

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