As HP bails and Dell fades, who will make PCs?

Despite declining sales, PCs will keep selling by the hundreds of millions, but they may all be white boxes

At the rate things are going, you may have no choice but to buy a Mac, even if you run Windows -- via Apple's Boot Camp feature or via desktop virtualization, of course. Though not a done deal, Hewlett-Packard said yesterday it was looking to exit the PC business, and Dell has been slowly withdrawing from the consumer PC market. With these two companies account for 30 percent of all PCs sold globally and 49.5 percent in the United States, you have to wonder who will take their place.

Lenovo is in the best position, followed by Acer. Lenovo is already No. 3 globally, at 12 percent, versus Dell's 12.5 and HP's 17.5 percent shares, according to Gartner's latest stats. Lenovo bought IBM's PC business in 2004 and is familiar to both consumers and businesses. It focuses on laptops, so those looking for desktop systems may be disappointed, but the number of desktop-style PCs sold continues to shrink. Lenovo also had the greatest growth rate of all PC makers globally.

Acer has tried for years to be a major player in the PC market, first with its own (well-regarded) laptops and then by buying Gateway and cheapo-PC maker E-Machines. It accounts for 10.9 percent of PCs sold globally. Asus, which makes netbooks (remember those?) comes in at 5.2 percent, tied with Toshiba, which makes business-oriented notebooks. Apple's global presence is tiny, so it has both potential to grow and a real uphill climb in doing so.

In the United States, the picture is a lot different. HP accounts for 26.9 percent of PCs sold, and Dell for 22.6 percent. No. 3 -- and the fastest grower -- is Apple, which now accounts for 10.7 percent of all PCs sold in the nation. Toshiba comes in a 9.6 percent and Acer at 9.3 percent; Lenovo's presence is tiny, as most of its sales are in its home country, China, and other Asian nations.

Then there's Samsung, which has been tiptoeing around the PC market through its Chromebooks running Google's Chrome OS and its Galaxy Tab tablets running Google's Android. Would it want to buy out HP's PC business and play all sides of the PC/mobile divide?

The most logical companies to buy HP's PC business -- if HP sells it rather than spins it out as its own company (maybe HP could call it Compaq) -- are Acer and Lenovo due to their ambitions and histories. Apple will likely gain share in some countries as a result, but it will be more from iPad and iPhone pull than HP switchers.

In one sense, it won't matter much who makes the PCs, as the designs have become so commoditized (and Intel really drives their design anyhow, not the PC makers) that brand matters a lot less -- except for Apple's Macs and, for a niche audience, Panasonic's Toughbooks. Once, Acer had a distinctively high design and build quality, as did HP recently; if it polished off that approach, Acer might attact the business buyers that Dell wants but has had trouble satisfying of late.

The bigger issue for businesses will be their desire for stable hardware versions so that they can have the same tech support and software images for every device. HP and Dell fulfilled that demand, but it's not in the nature of most of the other PC makers to build and stock products that way. IT may need to give up on the idea of a PC monoculture, as it did this past year with smartphones in many organizations. The bad news: Each of us will end up paying for our work PCs, as is increasingly the case for smartphones and tablets.

Me, I'm glad I use a Mac, and I'm really glad I don't work at Microsoft. After all, it's hard to say who's going to help push Windows 8 at this point.

This story, "As HP bails and Dell fades, who will make PCs?," 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 developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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