Why Computers Have Largely Fallen Out Of Favor In Comparison To Smartphones

Ethan
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THE STATE OF COMPUTERS

Have you noticed that nobody uses computers anymore? Ok alright, before you get mad and leave a nasty comment, obviously, computers are still extremely popular. Literally over a billion people still own computers and hundreds of millions use them every day for work, school, and entertainment. 


Why Does Nobody Use Computers Anymore?


Personally, I’m very much part of this group, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about a larger macro shift away from computers. Take internet traffic stats for example. Every month, Google gets 35.5 billion visits, but 77% of those visits, or 27.5 billion visits are from mobile. 


And this trend holds across the board. In fact, several websites skew even more towards smartphones. YouTube is 85% smartphones, Reddit is 81%, DuckDuckGo is 90%, Wikipedia is 80%, and certain other sites, well they’re around 95%. 


Looking through the data, you’d be pretty hard-pressed to find websites that are actually majority desktop. And usually, those are older websites that are largely used by older people. For example, Yahoo is only 43% mobile and Microsoft Online is only 21% mobile. 


But putting aside those exceptions, it’s clear that the skew is overwhelmingly towards smartphones, which if you think about it makes sense. Nowadays, people do everything from their smartphones whether it’s investing, buying a car, buying a house, reading the news, you name it. 


Really, the only time that most people still use computers is for productivity. You know, if your job or school requires Microsoft Office or coding or 3d modeling or a bunch of virtual meetings, you get the idea. 


But putting aside productivity, people tend to do everything on their smartphones. But why? Obviously, phones are more convenient on the go, but when you’re not on the go, computers can accomplish a lot more. 


Yet, the stats suggest that unless people have to use their computers, they don’t. So why in the world does nobody use computers anymore, and what does this mean for the future of desktop vs mobile? 



THE QUANTITATIVE EXPLANATION

Obviously, this hasn’t always been the case as smartphones haven’t even been around for 2 decades at this point, but with that being said, that also means that it hasn’t taken long for this trend to take hold, so what happened? 


Well, I think this trend can largely be explained by 3 overarching factors starting with demographics. You see, this trend has less to do with computer users suddenly using their smartphones more and more to do with younger people just never using computers. 


The average person spends 3 hours and 15 minutes every day on their smartphones which is already a lot of time. Millennials aren’t too much worse coming in slightly higher at 3.7 hours per day. But, do you wanna guess how much time Gen Z spends on their smartphones every day? Maybe 4, 5, or 6 hours? Well, it’s actually up to 9 hours. 


A lot of these people have rigorous full-time jobs and they still have insane amounts of screen time. Basically, if they’re not actively working on something that requires a computer or sleeping, they’re on their phones. 


Now, you could go down the whole rabbit hole of how healthy is this but that’s outside the scope of this article. What we’re really concerned about is how this affects smartphone usage, and clearly, it affects it enormously. 


The average person only uses their computer for 2 hours and 51 minutes per day. So when a single Zoomer clocks in over 3 times that on just their phones, it’s no wonder why the stats are skewed towards smartphones.

 

But that’s just the first reason, which brings us into the vastly different context of mobile and desktop usage. When you use computers, you naturally tend to be working on something more intense that requires a singular focus. 


So, even though you might end up spending hours on a computer in any given session, it’s likely that you only visited a handful of websites and programs. If you’re a coder for example, even if you spent 10 hours in front of the screen, it’s likely that your entire screen time only consisted of Slack, Visual Studio, Zoom, Stack Overflow, and Gmail. 


In contrast, if you spent 10 hours in front of a smartphone, your screen time was likely far more diverse. Sure, you might’ve only visited offerings from Google, Meta, and Amazon, but the number of individual pages you visited would likely be in the hundreds if not over 1000. 


If you’re scrolling through TikTok for example, you’re essentially visiting a new page every 5 seconds when you swipe. Even if you’re just surfing the web, you’re much more likely to bounce around. In fact, the average time spent on a desktop site is 40% longer than the average time spent on a mobile site. 


So, again considering that, it’s no surprise why internet traffic heavily leans in favor of mobile. But all of that really only applies to Western countries which brings us to the 3rd reason: the developing world. 


It’s only in Western countries where almost everyone has access to both 



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THE QUALITATIVE EXPLANATION

Here’s the thing, given the data we’ve discussed, it’s obvious that Gen Z and the developing world are skewing the data towards smartphones, but there’s more to this story because I don’t think that that’s a forced reality. 


Virtually every Zoomer has access to both a smartphone and a computer, so the fact that they spend 9 hours a day on smartphones is very much a choice. 


Also, regarding the developing world, even if you gave them all computers right now, I suspect that their use would still primarily skew towards smartphones for which I’ve got an explanation that primarily centers on the vastly different adoption curves of the computer and the smartphone. 


The traditional computer can be traced all the way back to 1822, but the average person didn’t get a personal computer till the 1990s and really the 2000s. You could say that this was because computers were simply too expensive before the '90s but you could say the same things about a car. 


Cars are super expensive but the average person has been getting cars since the Model T days because the need outweighs the high price. For computers, however, that was simply not the case because computers were not initially designed for average people. 


It was designed for corporations, governments, and universities to conduct research, do mathematical analyses, and create communication and storage infrastructure. The average person in the 70s and 80s had no use for any of that, so buying a computer for personal use was more of a novelty than anything. 


The fact that computers eventually became applicable to the average person was more of a byproduct of innovation as opposed to the focus of innovation. With smartphones, however, it was the exact opposite. 


At most, you can say that the first smartphone was created in 1992 but smartphones really had no utility in society for businesses or people until the iPhone. And as for the iPhone, well, that was designed specifically for the consumer. 


Everything from the over-the-top animations and intuitive gestures to the seemingly infinite app store and inviting UI, it was all designed as a luxury purchase for the average person. And this difference has set the stage for everything that came about on both platforms. And you don’t even have to look that far to spot these differences. 


Take Google for instance, something that came out during the computer era. Originally, Google was a Stanford research project meant to help people research. It just so happened that everyday people eventually found utility in consulting Google regularly. 


Now, in contrast, take a look at mobile-first services like Uber, Airbnb, Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok, Robinhood, DoorDash, and so on. Each and every one of these services was designed from the ground up to maximize consumption from all fronts whether that’s screen time, engagement, revenue, market share, you name it. 


So, from that perspective, it’s really not surprising why people prefer to spend a lot more time on a device that was created for consumption as opposed to a device that was created for utility. And this association has been engraved in people’s minds. 


That’s probably why you tend to use your laptop at your desk but your phone or your tablet on your bed or couch. The bottom line is that people use computers because it’s a utility that they need while they use smartphones because it’s a luxury that they want. 


Now, of course, you can argue that in the modern age, smartphones are very much also a need and I completely agree with that. But, I would also argue that want still plays a far larger role with smartphones than it does with computers. 


That’s why people are far more likely to purchase a flagship smartphone as opposed to a flagship computer, even if prices are the same. So, that kind of explains why nobody uses computers anymore both from a quantitative standpoint and a qualitative standpoint. And that leaves just one question: what does this mean for the future of the desktop and mobile markets? 



DESKTOP VS MOBILE

Corporations are well aware of this trend and that’s why they’ve shifted their entire focus towards smartphones. This includes building better mobile websites, better mobile apps, and of course, spending a lot more on mobile ads. 


Desktop vs Mobile comparison graph


I mean just take a look at this chart. In 2013, desktop ad spend stood at $32 billion while mobile ad spend stood at just $10 billion or a third of desktop ad spend. By 2015 though, they were both at roughly $30 billion, and by 2019, mobile had grown to $65 billion while desktop was down to $25 billion. 


And as you would probably guess, this disparity has only grown even further thanks to the pandemic. As of 2023, mobile accounts for 70% of programmatic digital ad spend within the US while desktops and laptops only account for a mere 13%. 



Does this mean that computers are just dead and companies will stop offering desktop platforms? 

No, of course not. While people prefer to spend the majority of their time on mobile devices, they still very much value having a desktop option as well. For example, with banking, I probably only log on to the desktop portal a few times a year while I log in to the mobile portal almost every day. 


But, I still very much value the desktop portal because it makes downloading account statements and filing taxes a lot easier. Similarly, if I’ve watching Netflix, it’s always on my iPad or TV, but if I were to manage my membership or cancel my subscription, I’d probably do it on the computer. And I get the feeling that this is how most people feel, let me know down below if you agree. 


Wrapping Up

With that being said, I suspect that services will become more and more mobile-centered while desktop offerings become more and more geared towards managing these services or doing tasks that aren’t as easy on mobile. 


Desktops will also of course continue to be extremely relevant when it comes to productivity, but that’s why the internet is now dominated by smartphones. 

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