After A Troubled 2013, The PC Market Looks For Stability

Today Gartner released a preliminary set of results for the global PC market in the fourth quarter of 2013, indicating that PC sales fell 6.9% to 82.6 million units.

2013 has certainly been a historically tough year for PCs and the industry that builds and sells them. Gartner, with its fourth quarter predictions now mostly in place, estimates that the PC market shrank 10% during the year. Total unit volume was 315.9 million units, a level that The Next Web points out is equivalent to shipments in 2009.

I think that we can cap 2013’s PC market with a few statements. Let’s begin:

  1. The PC market had a very difficult year, shrinking around 10%.
  2. That 10% figure is directly in tune with predictions.
  3. With 315.9 million units shipped in the year, the PC market remains massive.
  4. That fact will keep Microsoft’s Windows operating system relevant, even as it sorts out remaining difficulties — developer interest gap, app deficit, training the world on a new UI, etc — with its new Windows 8.x platform.
  5. The folks that correctly predicted the 2013 PC unit volume decline anticipate that the market will contract less in 2014, and stabilize thereafter.

That last point is not news. The prediction (IDC, not Gartner if you were curious) expects a 3.8% contraction in 2014, and then for the pace of sales to become “slightly positive in the longer term.” All told this means that the PC market should manage to stay above 300 million units per year for the forseeable future.

Oh no, the world is ending.

I’ve been as guilty as most in using hyperbolic language to describe the PC market. Plummeting, decimating, falling, crashing and the like have been the lingua franca of reporting on the year’s results. But historic declines can be accidentally conflated with existential threat if we are not careful.

I think that in retrospect, 2013 will remain a decidedly black eye on the PC market’s history. But provided that the folks counting boxes have it right, the swan dive (I did it again) is all but in the pool.

Why was 2013 such a bad year for PCs? You could point to a weak economy, issues regarding Windows 8 and its market reception, unimaginative new PCs from OEMs, rising tablet demand, a general shift to mobile, and a host of other reasons. There is no single cause. But it’s worth noting that what likely merged to create the turbulent confluence that so retarded PC sales is in decline itself. The economy is better, PC design is better, Windows 8.1 is better, and so forth.

A 3.8% decline this year for PCs would certainly not be a win. But anything less than a 5% decline I think supports the prediction that the decline in PC sales is slowing, and could end altogether.

I don’t quite know how to phrase this, but once the PC market stops shrinking (again, we’re leaning on trends and predictions), the idea of a post-PC world itself ends. In fact, we need a new term. Call it the co-PC world, in which tablets and smartphones are equal in weight and importance to the PC.

As I’ve written before, there is a muddle afoot in all of this. Operating systems are breaking down their own walls and spreading tentacles across device classes. This means that if we compare the traditional PC market to tablets, say, we are pitting one group of Windows devices against another. That won’t do, obviously, for comparison’s sake.

And, as other operating systems — Android, in this case — move up the device size chart (from phone, to tablet, to PC) we are going to have a more diverse PC market in general, further undercutting its performance as indicative of the health of WinTel, as we have for so long deemed it.

So, fuck 2013 is what I’m saying, from the PC market’s perspective. It was awful. But shrinking 10% from massive scale still leaves massive scale.

We need to keep close eyes on continuing declines in PC sales, but inside the next 8 quarters we could see a positive year-over-year period for PC sales. Something to think about.

Top Image Credit: Flickr