Windows 8 PCs languish in a world of hurt

Bad news piles up for PCs in general and Microsoft in particular -- unless, of course, you redefine what constitutes a PC

Quick, does anyone have a Windows 8 success story they'd like to share? Because right about now Microsoft and the companies that make Windows PCs could use some good news. Maybe I wouldn't go as far as Robert X. Cringely, who says, "You can make more money selling oranges at freeway off-ramps than you can selling PCs these days." But you know the news ain't good when the Onion starts mocking you.

Windows 8, Microsoft's big play to revive the PC market and shore up the company's dominance in the workplace, is in trouble. Statistics from Net Applications show Windows 8's usage uptake fell further behind Vista's last month. As Gregg Keizer observed, "Windows 8's inability to match Vista's usage ... is an ill omen for Microsoft's new operating system. Vista has been pegged a failure -- Microsoft itself has not bothered to mention the OS for years -- because of its lackluster adoption. Associations with that flop, rather than with the triumphs of Windows XP and Windows 7, increasingly paint Windows 8 as a failure thus far."

Some pundits, like InfoWorld's own Galen Gruman, have been predicting the demise of Windows PCs for a while. Although Gartner had been using somewhat less apocalyptic language, noting a "structural shift" in the PC market, this week the research firm went further and predicted that by 2015, Apple's OS X-based Mac laptops will be as widely accepted by IT pros as their Microsoft Windows-based counterparts. "Driven by Apple's efforts to make its OS X operating system more compatible with the iPhone's, iPad's, and iPod Touch's iOS, more users will bring OS X devices to work where IT will have to deal with them," Gartner said.

That Gartner study has to hurt, but it's only one of a thousand cuts. As Gruman notes in today's Smart User blog, a global study by Forrester Research shows that the rise of the post-PC employee is here. IDC bolsters that finding with a report predicting "the number of people accessing the Internet through PCs in the U.S. will shrink from 240 million in 2012 to 225 million in 2016," and Good Technology asserts "employees believe so much in the post-PC devices that they're willing to pay for them themselves to use at work."

Of course one way to brighten the fortunes of the PC category is to simply redefine what we mean by a PC. Research company Canalys did that when it lumped tablets alongside desktops and laptops and declared Apple the top PC vendor for the past quarter, with 27 million shipped units and a market share of 20 percent thanks to booming sales of the iPad and iPad Mini tablets.

However, for Microsoft, a rose by any other name would still not smell sweet. That Canalys report also noted that Microsoft shipped just 720,000 of its Surface RT tablet -- ouch. This week's reviews of its new Surface Pro tablet, which is really more laptop than tablet, exhibited a decidedly sour cast as well. When reviewers weren't making excuses for the shortcomings in Windows 8, they frequently took a "critical, sometimes bitter tone about the Surface Pro itself," reports InfoWorld's Woody Leonhard.

Microsoft is casting about in search of a magic goat to fix things. In the meantime, it's lending $2 billion to Dell, an investment less about Dell than about the future of PCs, as the company clearly stated: "Microsoft is committed to the long-term success of the entire PC ecosystem and invests heavily in a variety of ways to build that ecosystem for the future." While Dell isn't about to follow IBM in abandoning PCs, its recent moves have revived the rumor that Hewlett-Packard is again thinking of splitting off its PC division.

Pity the poor PC -- unless, of course, you're talking about Apple's tablets.

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