Although a historic downturn in PC shipments has made headlines since April, "peak PC" -- the moment when personal computers crested -- was two years ago, according to data from researcher IDC.
In the third quarter of 2011, global PC shipments totaled 96.1 million, slightly more than the following quarter's 95.8 million, IDC said. But shipments declined 4 percent in 2012 and are headed for an even larger dip of 8 percent, perhaps more, in 2013.
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"It's very possible that that was the peak," said Bob O'Donnell, an analyst at IDC who is on the PC shipment tracking team, referring to the third quarter of 2011.
What's not clear is whether PCs are on an irrevocable slide or will reach a lower-level plateau and stabilize. O'Donnell believes the latter. "I do think that [the industry] can come up from where it is today," he said.
Al Gillen, also with IDC, and one of several analysts there who cover Microsoft, agreed. "We're not predicting a continual contraction, the PC business has not gone into a free fall where years out it vanishes," said Gillen. "But what has happened, it's lost momentum."
Even so, IDC, which had predicted that the second half of the year would salvage the year from an even steeper decline and set the stage for a minor comeback in 2014, is now reconsidering. Its research rival Gartner sees the same trend.
O'Donnell said that the firm now suspects that the third and fourth quarters of this year will play out worse than previously anticipated. "The numbers are TBA," said O'Donnell.
Both IDC and Gartner are now convinced that 2014 will be the signal year for PCs. If shipments recover next year, 2013 could prove to be the rock bottom. Additional declines throughout 2014, however, could be debilitating for any business that overwhelmingly relies on the traditional desktop-plus-notebook model, especially Microsoft, whose Windows and Office depend on new PCs to drive growth.
IDC and Gartner remain cautiously optimistic that 2014 will be better for the PC business. Less than a month ago, Gartner pegged total PC shipments in 2014, including a separate category it labeled "ultramobile," at 329 million, or 1.1 percent higher than 2013's estimate.
Likewise, O'Donnell saw a silver lining in the second quarter's U.S. numbers, which were down just 1 percent year-over-year. "The U.S. is a bellwether, and we started to see some turnaround there last quarter," he noted. In the United States, some of the improved numbers were driven by corporate upgrades from the soon-to-retire Windows XP, a process O'Donnell said could generate sales past XP's April 2014 end-of-life as many companies fail to meet the deadline.
But other experts disagreed with IDC's and Gartner's measured confidence that 2013 will be the toughest year the PC industry sees.