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PC industry woes worsen as 'phenomenal transition' shrinks shipment numbers

Windows 8.1 can't turn around the trend, says IDC

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The PC industry's problems continue to worsen, said research firm IDC yesterday as it again lowered shipment forecasts for the year.

And the personal computer business's problems are Microsoft's problems.

"Windows 8.1 will not be a driver [of sales] in the short term, not to consumers," said Jay Chou, one of the IDC analysts who works on the PC tracking team. "And enterprises have only very recently migrated to Windows 7."

For the second time this year, IDC sharply reduced its PC shipment estimates, which count systems that come off predominantly Asian factory lines and are shipped worldwide to distributors, directly to retail, or to computer sellers like Lenovo, Hewlett Packard and Dell. According to IDC, 2013 will end with a 9.7% contraction compared to the year before, the largest in the firm's 18 years of tracking the statistic.

In May, IDC adjusted its forecast from -1.3% for the year to -7.8%.

If IDC's prediction is accurate, it would mean that 315.3 million personal computers will ship in 2013, about the same number as in 2009.

Next year will probably be slightly worse: IDC's now saying that 2014 shipments will decline 2% compared to the already dismal numbers of 2013. Not until 2015 will shipments increase, and then only by an estimated 1% over the prior year.

"This is a phenomenal transition," said Chou of the decline of the PC in the face of a shifting landscape, where mobile -- smartphones and tablets -- have absconded with not only dollars but also with peoples' time, time once spent in front of a PC.

"If you think about it, from 1995 onwards, we've had multiple recessions but the PC industry kept on ticking," Chou said. "In 2001 it shrank for a year, with the dot-com bust, but we've always had events that fueled PC demand all over. First it was broadband. Then it was Wi-Fi, which untethered computers and brought about the popularity of the notebook. Netbooks encouraged the last market boom. But this transition...."

IDC also said that the PC's best days were not only behind it, but not to be equaled, at least through 2017, as far out as it dares to forecast.

"The market as a whole is expected to decline through at least 2014, with only single-digit modest growth from 2015 onward, and never regain the peak volumes last seen in 2011," IDC said in a statement accompanying its latest forecast [emphasis added].

"Peak PC," as Computerworld dubbed it in July, was the third quarter of 2011, when 96.1 million systems shipped. The following quarter, PC makers shipped 95.8 million machines. Since then, the numbers have slipped.

If 2013 ends up as IDC expects, the year would represent a 13% contraction from 2011, the industry's high-water mark.

Other than computer component suppliers and PC makers, Microsoft will be the company hit the hardest: Sales of its Windows operating system are almost entirely reliant on new PC sales.

Microsoft knows that as well as anyone and has already told Wall Street to expect lower revenue from its Windows group this quarter. At the last earnings call, in July, company Chief Financial Officer Amy Hood told investors to expect a 2% decline in Windows revenue for the quarter ending Sept. 30 when compared to the year before. Hood did not explain why her estimate of Windows revenue was at odds with her expectation that PC sales would decline "in the mid-teens" during the quarter.

The Redmond, Wash., company is in the midst of a reorganization that will make it more difficult for analysts to gauge Windows' performance, as it's been shifted to a new group responsible for all Microsoft operating systems, including Windows Phone.

But Chou doubted that Windows 8.1, the major update Microsoft plans to ship in October, would move the PC needle this year, or anytime soon.

"The transition of the PC world has some ways to go. Windows apps are still not at the stage to turn the tide," Chou said, referring to the touch-first, tile-based apps at the heart of the "Modern," originally known as "Metro" user interface that is one half of Windows 8 and all of Windows RT. "Devices with much longer battery life are coming to some of the laptop segments, so that's a positive, but the software experience on PCs has not changed to address what tablets and smartphones bring to the table.

"Microsoft has made some concessions that users have wanted in Windows 8.1, not all the way, half the way, but they are important things at the very least to help enterprise users look at 8.1 down the line," Chou said.

PCs -- as most visualize them after three decades -- will not disappear, Chou acknowledged. "People are still more comfortable with a PC for productivity-related tasks, and in certain markets, with the larger screen, it does offer a total Web experience rather than looking at a mobile Web site. But those are not strong enough reasons to sustain those earlier sales cycles."

That said, businesses will be using more PCs far longer than consumers, Chou said. "Commercial users are much more captive to the Wintel platform," he said, using the term for the Windows-Intel collaboration that put billions of PCs on desktops and laps.

In the short term, the dreary outlook will drive sellers to aggressively promote PCs in the fourth quarter. Chou expected to see heavy discounting during the traditionally strong holiday sales season.

But one longer-range trend that IDC's seen will keep PC makers up at night.

While tablets and smartphones remained relatively expensive, IDC said there was a zero-sum game at work: Dollars spent on tablets and smartphones were dollars taken from PC sales. And when those mobile devices fell in price, as they would inevitably do, dollars would be freed up for PC purchases.

That's not happening. "On the consumer side, tablets and smartphones are very cheap in many markets," said Chou. "But we're not seeing those dollars, that wallet segment, moving their way to PCs."

This article, PC industry's woes worsen as 'phenomenal transition' shrinks shipment numbers, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

Read more about pcs in Computerworld's PCs Topic Center.

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