iPad, Windows 7 Impact on Slowing PC Sales Debated

After record numbers in the fourth quarter of 2010, PC sales slowed considerably in the first quarter of 2011, according to analysts, who debated whether the primary culprit was the rise of the iPad and other tablets, or Microsoft's Windows 7.

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Whether the Apple iPad and its competitors are hurting PC sales is, these days, a popular topic for debate. Less debatable is that worldwide PC sales fell 0.3 percent during the first quarter, from last year's 81.6 million during the same quarter to 81.3 million most recently, according to research firm IHS iSuppli.

The dip was made more pronounced by the fact that the quarter followed the "best period ever" for global PC sales, with shipments hitting a quarterly record of 93.1 million units. Three of the top five PC makers reported year-over-year declines, with number-three PC maker Acer-which has relied heavily on netbook sales-bearing the brunt of the downturn and suffering what iSuppli calls the most "direct competitive threat from media tablets."

"The increasing momentum of the media-tablet market, led by the iPad, is creating a difficult environment for the PC industry," Matthew Wilkins, an IHS principal analyst, said in a May 24 statement. "IHS believes that the jury is still out on exactly how much tablets are cannibalizing PC sales. However, the rising number of tablet models on the market, along with certain high-profile product launches during the first quarter, caused confusion among consumers as to exactly how to view the tablet platform relative to the PC platform. This contributed to the PC sales decline in the first quarter."

Forrester Research analyst Sarah Rotman Epps-as well as analysts at the NPD Group-suggest it's not tablets affecting PC sales so much as Microsoft's Windows release cycle.

"So many consumers bought new PCs when Windows 7 came out, and without a new version of Windows this year, there isn't the same catalyst to buy," Rotman Epps explained in a May 17 blog post. "Forrester's data shows that 34 percent of U.S. online consumers report having bought a PC in the past 12 months, and an additional 25 percent bought one 12 to 24 months ago. Tablet owners are actually more likely than U.S. online consumers in general to have recently bought a PC: 44 percent in the past 12 months and 28 percent in the 12 months before that."

Stephen Baker, NPD's vice president of industry analysis, has also argued that the threat to the netbook-slinging Acers of the market isn't tablets.

"The conventional wisdom that says tablet sales are eating into low-priced notebooks is most assuredly incorrect," Baker said in a May 10 report. "The over-$500 segment of the [Microsoft] Windows consumer notebooks market is where PC sales have been impacted the most, with a 25 percent decline from October 2010 to March 2011."

Cannibalization of netbooks, he added, "is actually down by 50 percent among more recent iPad buyers, when compared to early adopter buyers."

Both Baker and Rotman Epps added that, with consumers growing accustomed to truly innovative tablet designs, PC makers would need to push the envelope past what Baker called "good-enough computing."

According to Rotman Epps, one way that market leader HP is looking to do just that is through advances such as ePrinting, which, makes it easier to print from a device, and with CoolSense technology, which automatically senses whether the device is being used on a desk or the user's lap and accordingly adjusts its temperature.

During the quarter, HP retained its title as the top PC vendor, though it posted a 2.1 percent decrease year-over-year. Second-place Dell similarly was down by 1.8 percent, but neither came close to the hit suffered by Acer, with its 20.4 percent fall, from 11.6 million units during the first quarter of 2010 to 9.2 million units during the 2011 first quarter.

Lenovo, following in fourth place, enjoyed a 15.4 percent jump, and fifth-place Toshiba also posted growth of 2.6 percent.

IHS expects growth to return to the market later in the year, and for yearly sales to finish at 373 million units, up from 2010's 345 million. While this would represent a growth of 8 percent, it's still down from the 14 percent growth with which the market concluded 2010.