The PC is on life support, and PC makers are mostly to blame

PC shipments have steadily dropped to a record low, and Microsoft and Apple deserve only some of the blame

Industry observers have heralded the death of the PC for years now -- and it appears those prophecies are indeed coming to pass. The worldwide PC market is coming off of its worst quarter in history with shipments 13.9 percent lower than they were a year ago, according to IDC. The damage was far worse than the 7.7 percent decline the research company had predicted; it also marked the fourth consecutive quarter of year-over-year shipment declines.

Hewlett-Packard, Asus, Acer, Dell, and other prominent PC makers that have seen their pieces of the PC market pie steadily shrink can no longer blame the global recession. If they need to point fingers, they can lay some blame at Microsoft's feet for failing to inspire with Windows 8. They can blame (or credit) Apple for its lead role in accelerating the arrival of post-PC era, where tablets and smartphones have emerged as essential PC supplements if not outright alternatives. But most of all, PC makers have no one to blame but themselves for clinging far too long to the same old hardware designs while continually betting the farm on the success of Windows.

Bob O'Donnell, IDC's program vice president for clients and displays, linked the decline in PC sales to Windows 8's lackluster reception. "At this point, unfortunately, it seems clear that the Windows 8 launch not only failed to provide a positive boost to the PC market, but appears to have slowed the market," he said. "While some consumers appreciate the new form factors and touch capabilities of Windows 8, the radical changes to the UI, removal of the familiar Start button, and the costs associated with touch have made PCs a less-attractive alternative to dedicated tablets and other competitive devices. Microsoft will have to make some very tough decisions moving forward if it wants to help reinvigorate the PC market."

Lest anyone think that PC makers didn't know how to make the most out of Windows 8, remember that Microsoft itself has built not one but two machines for the platform, neither of which gained much traction. Microsoft is now grooming a new version of Windows 8 dubbed Windows "Blue," planned for June 7. At this point, it appears Windows "Blue" will be little more than Windows 8 with some tweaks, not a version designed to address the platform's innumerable shortcomings.

Apple, too, has contributed to the decline of the PC market -- or more accurately, has been a catalyst for the shift into the post-PC era. Whether you love or hate Apple, you can't deny that the company has played a critical role in demonstrating that smartphones and tablets can be viable PC alternatives. IDC noted the surge in tablet and smartphone sales has diverted spending away from PCs.

In a way, Apple has also been a victim of its own success: Its iPad sales have cannibalized its Mac sales, according to IDC's estimates (Gartner says Mac sales have actually risen). However, the company is not hurting the way its rivals are. If you lump tablet shipments in with PC shipments (IDC doesn't, but Canalys does), Apple becomes the world market leader, a noteworthy accomplishment, considering the relatively low adoption rate of Macs outside the United States.

It's not as though HP, Dell, and other rivals couldn't follow Apple's lead, either. Samsung has enjoyed tremendous success on the tablet front with Android. Add tablet and PC shipments together, and Samsung is the No. 2 leader.

Ultimately, this leads to the primary suspect in the death of the PC: PC makers themselves. Not only have they continued to tie their fates to Microsoft Windows -- which has shown past signs of weakness (Windows Vista) -- many have simply failed to innovate to meet real user demand, a point well expressed by InfoWorld columnist Bill Snyder. Maybe Ultrabooks or zany hybrid machines look good on paper or in slideshows, but users aren't biting, and that's what matters.

Other factors have contributed to the demise of the PC, such as the availability of free, cloud-based apps and storage lockers that render overly expensive, powerful computers unnecessary for casual users. There's also virtualization and next-gen thin clients, which can be less expensive and more secure in an office environment.

It will be interesting in coming months to see how companies such as Dell, HP, Acer, and Asus adapt to the shifting landscape. They have their work cut out. "The industry is going through a critical crossroads, and strategic choices will have to be made as to how to compete with the proliferation of alternative devices and remain relevant to the consumer," said David Daoud, IDC's research director for personal computing. "Vendors will have to revisit their organizational structures and go to market strategies, as well as their supply chain, distribution, and product portfolios in the face of shrinking demand and looming consolidation."

This article, "The PC is on life support, and PC makers are mostly to blame," 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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