PC Sales Improve, But Long-Term Trend is Still Down, IDC Says

Low-cost PCs, Chromebooks and Windows XP migrations continue to help, but competition from other devices means declines in the future.

PC sales

The increasing popularity of Chromebooks, the saturation in the tablet market and the ongoing migration away from Windows XP are helping to slow the decline in PC sales worldwide, and are helping fuel growth in mature markets, according to analysts with IDC.

The market research firm in a report Aug. 27 said that PC shipments worldwide will fall 3.7 percent this year compared with 2013. However, while still a decline, it's better than the 6 percent fall IDC analysts had previously forecasted, and includes a projected 5.6 percent increase in sales in mature regions like North America and Western Europe.

The PC industry in emerging markets is still being impacted by the popularity of other devices, including tablets and smartphones, and political and economic challenges in places like the Middle East, Africa and Asia, according to the analysts.

That said, a number of factors are conspiring to give hope in an industry that has seen severe contraction of sales over the last several years, as smartphones and—in particular—tablets grew in popularity. One of the key drivers remains Microsoft's decision to end support in April of the aged Windows XP operating system, hoping to force users to adopt Windows 7 or 8. That has helped fuel a refresh of systems as users—particularly in the commercial space—move to OSes that will continue to be supported by Microsoft.

However, other factors increasingly are coming into play. Among them is the high penetration of tablets in the market and the move among buyers to smaller devices that can't compete as well against PCs, according to IDC. In May, IDC analysts said that worldwide tablet shipments in the first quarter fell 36 percent from the previous quarter, and grew only 4 percent over the same period in 2013. Analysts at the time noted the buyer shift toward smartphones with larger screens and the growing tendency among tablet owners to hold onto their devices for longer periods of time.

In addition, sales in the commercial space were not making up for slowing consumer purchases, they said.

The slowing tablet sales come at the same time that PC makers are putting new slimmer and lower-cost touch-enabled systems into the market, including new form factors such as two-in-ones, which can be used as either a traditional laptop or a tablet. PC and component makers that had been financially battered over the last several years by the sales contraction noted that their PC businesses seemed to be stabilizing. Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, whose company has been a leading proponent of such systems as two-in-ones and convertibles, has said that while Microsoft's decision regarding Windows XP played a role, so had the new form factors and lower costs in PCs.

IDC analysts also noted the increasing popularity of Chromebooks, particularly in the education segments in mature markets.

However, even though the market appears to be improving, the analysts warned that long-term growth is still unsure, given that smartphones and tablets will continue to be players in the mobile computing space and that the number of Windows XP users is shrinking.

"Programs to reduce PC prices, such as Windows 8.1 with Bing, have helped to improve PC shipments in some segments," Jay Chou, senior research analyst for IDC's Worldwide PC Trackers, said in a statement. "Coupled with a shift toward more mobile PCs, the market has seen a quickened pace of innovation and a focus on price points. Nevertheless, the prospects for significant PC growth in the long term remain tenuous, as users increasingly see PCs as only one of several computing devices."

Loren Loverde, vice president of Worldwide PC Trackers, said that while the competition with tablets is waning, the replacement cycles for PCs has grown as users have had other computing options to pursue.

"The launch of Windows 9 Threshold in 2015 could potentially boost demand, although it will be hard to gauge the actual impact until the advantages to consumers and commercial users in functionality and integration with specific devices is more apparent," Loverde said. "For the moment, we continue to see PC demand coming primarily from replacements with overall shipments declining slightly through the end of the forecast."

That can be seen in IDC's numbers. In mature markets, the total numbers in PCs shipped will grow from 133.3 million units last year to 140.7 million in 2014. However, by 2018, that number is expected to be back to 129.2 million, they said. Worldwide, the trend continues downhill: 315.1 million units last year, 303.5 million this year, and 291.1 million by 2018.