How Lenovo kept PC sales strong while everyone else tanked

Active support for Windows 7, sales of Windows-less PCs, and focus on growing Asia market have let Lenovo buck the trend

By now you've read the IDC report saying that worldwide PC shipments dipped 13.9 percent, year-on-year, in the first quarter of 2013. You may have also read Gartner's report saying that worldwide PC shipments dropped 11.2 percent in the first quarter. Both companies wail about how PC shipments have fallen off a cliff, in spite of their earlier predictions -- IDC had previously foretold a decline of 7.7 percent in the first quarter, and Gartner had cited a 7.6 percent decline for the year. I figure it's just another "oops, forget what we said last time" moment. Neither company has officially updated its crystal (or brass) balls, but I'm sticking to my prediction that PC sales (net of returns) in 2013 will be around 20 percent lower than in 2012.

No doubt you've also heard all the reasons for the decline: Windows 8 (yes, it's that bad); hardware manufacturers that can't seem to innovate; the iPad revolution -- I use the term deliberately -- and how consumers are buying tablets and smartphones over notebooks; the economic pinch; the fact companies can't even get upgraded to Win7 and wouldn't tackle Win8 on a bet; and on and on. They're all important factors, and certainly each has contributed to the quarterly train wreck.

But there's one outlying data point -- one anomaly -- that bears examining, and I haven't seen it discussed in the thunderous industry self-flagellation: Lenovo's doing pretty darn well.

Depending on whose numbers you use, Hewlett-Packard's worldwide PC shipments are down about 25 percent year-over-year. Dell's down more than 10 percent. Acer's down 30 percent. Asus is down somewhere between 4 percent (Gartner) and 19 percent (IDC). But Lenovo's shipments have held steady or possibly gone up a skoosh.

You have to ask yourself: Why?

Five months ago, in a post about Windows RT and 8 sales, I took a look at what Lenovo was doing right and the other manufacturers were doing wrong. I noted that Lenovo was continuing to sell Windows 7 PCs while HP had turned its back on Win7. HP has since softened its "take your Win7 and shove it" stance, and Lenovo has been moving to the Win8 side of the force, but at the time my conclusion was this:

The proof's in the peddling. Let's look at HP's PC sales statistics for November and December when they're available and see how the gamble played out. My bet's on Windows 7-friendly Lenovo rolling all over HP.

Lenovo's playing both sides of the fence, of course, but it has two distinct advantages in the Win7-versus-Win8 wars.

First, a large percentage of Lenovo's sales are in Asia, where it's very common to find Lenovo PCs with no operating system preinstalled. In fact, in many Asian countries, it's hard to find Lenovo PCs with "genuine" Windows. In spite of the fact that Lenovo has promised for years to preinstall Windows on more PCs, and Steve Ballmer himself visited the Lenovo offices last December, it's still very easy to order Windows-less Lenovo computers from Asian Lenovo sites.

Second, Lenovo isn't shy about downgrading new purchases from Win8 to Win7, particularly for enterprises. In March, The Channel ran an interesting article about the downgrades in the United Kingdom, citing Lenovo's U.K. boss as saying:

The majority of Lenovo's enterprise shipments have Windows 7 installed; the touchscreen-friendly Windows 8 is discreetly bundled on its own separate disc. Lenovo has learned from the Windows Vista experience that the official Microsoft "downgrade" path can be painful. So the machines are "downgraded" to Windows 7 by default. Of course, that's exactly what customers want -- and Lenovo is reaping the benefit of listening to those customers. The computer maker even throws in a Start menu for Windows 8, which is installable from the Lenovo software bundle. The company wouldn't be drawn on the exact ratio of Windows 7 to Windows 8 machines shipped.

Of course, that's entirely legal --  there's nothing wrong with shipping new PCs with Win7 installed. What's surprising is the candor and the idea that new PCs from Lenovo U.K. headed to enterprises go out the door with Win7 by default.

I wonder if PC retailers will pick up on this and start offering Windows 7 by default on more -- most -- machines. It certainly couldn't hurt sales.

This article, "How Lenovo kept PC sales strong while everyone else tanked," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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