Move over, computers and tablets. For the first time, annual worldwide shipments of smartphones are larger than PCs and tablets.
According to figures released Friday by industry research firm Canalys, there were more than 158 million smartphones shipped in the fourth quarter of last year, a whopping 57 percent increase over the same quarter in 2010. For the entire year, smartphones were up 63 percent, to 487.7 million units.
By contrast, the global client PC market grew 15 percent last year, to 414.6 million units. This includes a huge, 274 percent growth in tablets, which are now the fast-growing segment in the client PC category.
Chris Jones, Canalys vice president and principal analyst, said in a statement that this is a "significant milestone." Jones said that, within a few years, smartphones "have grown from being a niche product segment at the high end of the mobile phone market to becoming a truly mass-market proposition."
The milestone comes as a previous report from Canalys, released earlier this week, showed that tablets are now 22 percent of all PC shipments. Coupled with Friday's report on the growth of smartphones, it's clear that the center of mobile computing is now in smartphones and tablets.
The Canalys report said that, while decreasing price points have been a key driver of the smartphone growth, there also has been an "increasing consumer appetite" for using smartphones for Net browsing, content consumption and apps.
However, the era of smart phones being more popular than computers or tablets may be short-lived. Canalys said it expects smartphone growth to slow this year, as vendors begin to emphasize cost control and profitability.
As an example, the company noted that some vendors who have focused on the low end, such as Huawei, ZTE and LG, are now turning their attention to higher-level, pricier models that cost more, improve margins, and serve as flagship devices.
According to Canalys, Apple now reigns as both the leading smartphone and client PC vendor, with tablets being included as a kind of PC. One reason for the boffo fourth quarter for smartphones was that Apple's hit iPhone 4S was released in October instead of during the summer. The iPhone showed 96 percent growth in units shipped in 2011 over 2010.
Samsung also had a terrific final quarter for 2011, with 35.3 million smartphones shipped. For the year, the company shipped 91.9 million, a huge jump over the nearly 25 million in 2010, and that doesn't include Samsung phones such as the Nexus S and the Galaxy Nexus, which Canalys lists as under the Google brand.
Several platform transitions may shake up predictions for next year and beyond about the trajectory of smartphones and tablets.
Research In Motion will be moving to its new BlackBerry 10 platform this year, Nokia is continuing its move from Symbian to Windows Phone 7, and there is already speculation on the Web about how Microsoft's next phone platform, Windows Phone 8, will integrate with the tablet-optimized Windows 8.