Analysis: Can IBM be Big again?

When two big market research houses recently released their rankings of the five biggest PC makers in the United States, one familiar name was a no-show. IBM

Although IBM's slide wasn't sudden, or surprising -- the firm had been in a virtual tie with three other firms for the bottom spot, with market share figure varying by tenths of a percent -- its absence was noted by company watchers. "From a bragging rights standpoint, it's very important," said Lou Mazzucchelli, an analyst at Gerard Klauer Mattison in New York.

The disclosure came only a few days before an analyst with Oppenheimer issued a report that IBM had also fallen behind Microsoft as the world's largest software company.

To be sure, IBM's drop in the rankings during the second quarter had a lot to do with the drastic steps it took to reduce inventory. That pullback was designed to better position the company to compete in months ahead. Similar steps were taken by rival Compaq which cut off shipments to the channel for about a month in an effort to reduce inventory. But while Compaq took a similar hit in sales, it retained -- barely -- its top spot in the U.S market. IBM, which had already seen its share drop, fell out of the rankings entirely. "If you go back and look at the growth rates of the 'Big Four,' IBM had the most anaemic growth rates," said Roger Kay an analyst with IDC which along with Dataquest issued separate rankings. "In quarters when Compaq, Dell and HP were all achieving high double digits, IBM was often exhibiting low double digits, closer to the market average. So they have, in fact, been slowly dropping back from that front pack for some time."

IBM disputed the market share figures and maintained that sales to end users remained strong, up about 25 percent from a year ago. "There is strong end-user demand," said Rod Adkins, general manager of desktop systems in the personal systems group at IBM. "Our focus in the second quarter was to blow out channel inventory, so we were much more interested in inventory moving out of the channel to end users. We're very pleased with the progress we've made at getting that rate where we want it. We consciously constrained the 'sales in' rate." He said the company had largely resolved any lingering inventory issues. In the meantime, he said IBM is pressing ahead with a program that allows resellers to configure and assemble machines.

The company has tripled revenue generated off the Web since it relaunched its online store in April. IBM sells online via its channel partners, allowing customers to configure orders that later get filled by resellers. Now, Adkins said, the company has to keep that end-user sales figure high. But that could be tough.

Market share figures are a bit like the college rankings. Most companies say they don't measure accurately and that they're not interested in the results. But those same companies fight tooth and claw to stay on top. Most notably, Compaq and Dell have been in a pitched battle for the number one spot -- one analyst dubbed it the Texas range wars. Analysts are predicting fierce price wars in the second half of the year as Compaq fights to retain its lead. That could make things difficult for someone like IBM, says Mazzucchelli. "But IBM is trying to manage a much different kind of business than some of the other companies there," he said. "They can't bring the whole company to a halt to manage the PC business." Adkins said IBM intends to be competitive on price. And he's hoping that the company can leverage its range of services and technology to boost PC sales.

But one analyst says IBM shouldn't even bother to try to fight for a place in the rankings and should instead focus on profitability. "Average selling prices are declining at a rapid clip you have to grow at three or four times the market to retain your position," said Ashok Kumar, an analyst at Piper Jaffrey in Minneapolis. "You're not going to be able to do that unless you give something up on price."

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