It's time to stop obsessing over PC sales

With PC sales now in decline for two years, it's time to stop wondering when things are going to start getting better, because that's probably not going to happen. But while there's a huge thundercloud towering over PC sales, it does come with a few silver linings.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

It seems that the wheels have well and truly fallen off the PC juggernaut. According to Gartner PC sales have now experienced "the eighth consecutive quarter of PC shipment decline," which is "the longest duration of decline in the history of the PC industry."

What this means is that worldwide PC shipments have fallen 5.7 percent during the third quarter of 2016, and are now down to 68.9 million units.

See also: Apple's disgracefully outdated Mac lineup is killing sales

Since Gartner deals only in estimates for the last quarter it's possible to get into a hair-splitting contest over the exact state of PC shipments, but it's hard to argue with the trend -- and that clearly shows declining sales.

At regular intervals over those two years we've been told to expect a recovery as a result of some new form factor or gimmick (such as the nettop, home theater PC, netbook and such), or that there will be a wave of upgrades resulting from businesses suddenly feeling embarrassed that they are managing to make do with PCs that are several years old.

Even the release of Windows 10 couldn't help flagging PC sales. Once upon a time a new Windows release would have been just the shock to the heart that the PC industry needed to reinvigorate sales, but not any more.

And Microsoft knew this, and instead focused on getting its new operating system on as many existing systems as possible rather than helping the OEMs to push out new Windows 10 systems. It was a hard enough job just trying to give Windows 10 away, with Microsoft having to backtrack on its initial lofty prediction that the operating system would be installed on a billion devices by mid-2018.

Growth took a further hot when the Windows 10 free upgrade period came to an end.

But the truth is that the PC, especially the desktop and laptop, has had a good run, a run spanning multiple decades. And the decline is hardly surprising given the pressure PCs have faced from smartphones and tablets (and smartwatches and VR goggles to a less extent).

Buyers -- both consumer and business -- only have so much money to spend on things, and right now PCs are not where the money is going.

"The PC is not a high priority device for the majority of consumers, so they do not feel the need to upgrade their PCs as often as they used to," writes Gartner analyst Mikako Kitagawa.

Think that's bad? It gets worse.

"Some," Mikako went on to say, "may never decide to upgrade to a PC again."

And that's the bottom line -- PC sales are in decline because many people no longer need a PC. And as smartphones and tablets and games consoles become more powerful, fewer and fewer people are going to want a PC. This is not to say that PCs are going to die off any time soon, or that they are an endangered species at risk of going extinct, it's simply that the glory days of the PC are over.

You might be wondering why the PC industry doesn't try to do something to halt the decline and try to make the PC great again. Problem is, the big PC industry players have been doing just that for years, slashing prices and profit margins in an effort to buoy sales. Short of giving PCs away for free, there's not much left for the industry players to do.

There are, however, a few silver linings in the billowing thundercloud towering over the PC industry.

Budget (under $300) laptops for work and play

First is that as far as buyers are concerned, there's never been a better time to buy. If you're in the market to buy a new PC, a few hundred bucks gets you a great system.

Secondly, we're seeing some much-needed innovation, especially when it comes to tablets and convertibles. There are some really nice systems out there that really take advantage of what Windows 10 has to offer.

And finally, a slower PC upgrade cycle means less e-waste and lower power consumption. Yes, tablets and smartphones still contribute to e-waste, and the industry needs to work harder to address the issues, but smartphones and tablets are smaller than laptops and desktops, and they tend to be resold rather than ending up on the junk heap.

We no longer care about pony and trap sales, and maybe it's time to consign our focus on PCs sales to the history books too.

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