PC shipments crater and tablets are the bogeymen

Worldwide PC shipments fell in Q3 for the worst back-to-school quarter in five years. The holidays won't be much better

The third-quarter numbers are in, and both of the major PC shipment bean-counting organizations agree that worldwide PC shipments are down year-on-year (IDC says down 7.6 percent, Gartner says 8.6 percent), but U.S. shipments held relatively stable (IDC says down 0.2 percent, Gartner says up 3.5 percent). In short, it was the worst back-to-school quarter in five years.

Worldwide, Lenovo and HP are running neck and neck, both eking out a bit of growth; Dell's shipments are up slightly, but Acer and Asus have hit the skids, down 20 to 30 percent from last year. In the United States, the big stories are Lenovo, with an increase of 25 percent or so; Toshiba, up about 14 percent; and Apple, with a decline of 11.2 percent (IDC) or 2.3 percent (Gartner), depending on whom you believe.

IDC's numbers don't include iPads or "Android-based tablets with detachable keyboards." Gartner's numbers don't include "media tablets such as the iPad." Neither company breaks out Surface sales, which are presumably too small to make any difference.

Tablets are the bogeymen, of course -- blamed by one and all for sapping PC sales.

I tend to look at the numbers with a Windows 7-versus-Windows 8 eye. Consumer PC shipments in the United States invariably come with Windows 8 pre-installed, and corporate shipments commonly end up with Windows 7. Outside the United States, PC shipments aren't always tied to an operating system -- any operating system. The fact that Lenovo dominates worldwide shipments, with 14 million PCs that may or may not have Windows pre-installed, yet only hits fourth place in the States, with 1.7 million PCs, speaks volumes: The United States accounts for about 20 percent of all PCs sold worldwide, yet Lenovo only sells about 12 percent of its PCs in the country. Could the difference be at least partially attributable to flexibility in shipping Windows 8 pre-installed?

IDC says that Windows 8.1, due next week, led to an uptick in PC shipments late in the quarter:

While shipments remained weak during the early part of the quarter, the market was somewhat buoyed by business purchases, as well as channel intake of Windows 8.1-based systems during September.

To my jaundiced eye, that's a danger sign. If the general acceptance of Windows 8.1 mirrors that of Windows 8, we're going to see a whole lot of Q3 PC shipments sitting on the shelves this Christmas. Granted, enterprise customers will be moving from Windows XP to Windows 7 as fast as they can, and that will drive some PC shipments. But it doesn't seem likely that this one-time shift will turn the PC market around even temporarily, much less permanently.

Although I have great hopes that Windows 9 will show a significant turnaround in the evolution of Windows -- primarily growing the phone system "up" into tablets, rather than forcing the desktop version "down" -- it's hard to be optimistic about Windows 8.1's prospects. A significant non-Band-Aid update to the PC version of Windows could well be a few years away, and the market's changing on Internet time.

A year ago, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer predicted that 400 million Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 devices would be in use by now. No matter how you count the chips, Win8 reality hasn't met up with Ballmer's expectations.

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