PC sales down, Windows 8 shares the blame

Some are holding off for the new Microsoft OS, but students just aren't buying

Customers holding back until Windows 8 is released, as well as businesses completing the refresh of their inventories, triggered a drop in PC sales over the past three months as compared to last year, a dip that may recover by year-end, experts say.

The Windows 8 trough - the suppression of PC sales because customers want to see Windows 8 before deciding to buy it or something else - was definitely a factor in the numbers, says Ezra Gottheil, senior analyst with Technology Business Research.

"That a new operating system suppresses sales in the quarter preceding its availability is proven by history," Gottheil says. "It even happens to Apple."

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That said, other factors came into play, according to Gartner. "Professional PC shipments in the U.S. began slowing in the second quarter of this year, and they continued the trend in the third quarter," says Mikako Kitagawa, principal analyst at Gartner in a written statement. "The results indicate that the replacement peak may have passed in the professional sector." Plus there is a continuing slowdown in consumer PC sales, she says.

In a statement announcing its third-quarter PC sales numbers, IDC says some of the slowdown can be pinned on a "loss of mindshare" among students who historically respond to back-to-school sales.

The research firm says PC sales worldwide were down 8.6% between the second and third quarters. Gartner numbers say that sales were down 8.3% as compared to the same period last year.

The numbers are surprising despite an already conservative outlook exposing vulnerability of PCs to the threat of other devices and the loss of mindshare among buyers who until recent years have flocked to back-to-school promotions in the third quarter for PCs, IDC says.

Another factor is the global economy; people have less money to spend and buying a new PC is pushed down the priority list, says Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies Associates. "Overall economic performance - GDP and consumer confidence - have more to say about PC sales historically, and the economy is affecting the market in general," he says.

If buyers are holding off in order to get a glimpse of Windows 8 before making a decision, the bounce after the operating system is available Oct. 26 could be modest, he says. As a practical matter, consumers buy whatever is on the shelf. If they're buying a Windows PC, and Windows 8 machines are what's on the shelf, they'll buy it, he says. "It's not a voluntary adoption," he says. "The voluntary adoption is corporate."

He says retail stores will convert entirely to Windows 8 by the end of the fourth quarter since they spent much of the third quarter selling down their Windows 7 inventory.

He says businesses have more interest in Windows 8 as a platform for tablets than for PCs. That's because Windows 8 tablets are more manageable than iPads. "They're interested in a touch tablet so they'll buy a few [Windows 8] and try them out on the sales group and executives," he says. "They want the manageability of Windows 8 but something more interesting than what they had [laptops]."

In other stats from the PC sales reports, IDC and Gartner differ on which vendor was No.1 in sales for the quarter. Gartner says Lenovo has edged out HP (15.7% to 15.5%), but IDC calls it HP by a nose (15.9% to 15.7%).

The difference may be that IDC includes sales of workstations in its numbers while Gartner doesn't.

(Tim Greene covers Microsoft for Network World and writes the Mostly Microsoft blog. Reach him at tgreene@nww.com and follow him on Twitter https://twitter.com/#!/Tim_Greene.)

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