Kids aren't the only ones who approach back-to-school season with a looming sense of dread. Computer makers count on returning students to goose PC sales, but the past few back-to-school seasons have been a bloodbath, offering no relief amid a protracted period of free-fall in the market.
But not this year! The NPD Research Group reports that consumer PC sales in the U.S. actually grew 3 percent over last year's showing.
Some interesting devils lie in the details, though: That growth was driven purely by Macs and Chromebooks. Sales of Windows laptops actually fell from 2013.
Why it matters: The wobbling PC industry is looking for any signs of hope after several years of bleeding. A strong back-to-school season delivers just that. Microsoft must be chagrined, though, that the growth comes from competitors that are leveraging their strong lead in mobile devices to chip away at Windows' market share.
A light at the end of the tunnel?
The biggest winner percentage-wise was Google, as Chromebook sales skyrocketed a whopping 37 percent over the previous year. Apple has to be smiling, too, as Mac sales grew an additional 14 percent. Windows-PC sales slipped 3 percent.
Now, don't let those percentages fool you: The vast majority of PCs—68.4 percent—still ship with Microsoft Windows installed. But its slice of the back-to-school PC pie has steadily decreased over the past couple of years, from 75.2 percent in 2012. In the same timeframe, Chromebooks sales have leaped from a meager 0.2 percent overall to this year's 4.5 percent.
Independent analyst Ben Thompson summed up the situation perfectly, and with emoji no less.
PC sales up 3% -> MSFT 😄 Mac sales up 14% -> MSFT 😳 Chromebook sales up 37% -> MSFT 😱 Windows sales down 3% -> MSFT 😵 http://t.co/NqBXEEHFGw— Ben Thompson (@monkbent) September 25, 2014
Microsoft is in a fight for its very future, as it scrambles to stay relevant in a world that's gone mad for mobile. While the company was a veritable giant during the sit-down PC era, Microsoft's share of connected devices overall is a much more humbling 14 percent—a fact that Microsoft itself acknowledged at its partner conference earlier this year.
After years of hemorrhaging PC sales—be it from tablet cannibalization, a plateauing of PC performance, or the evolution of PCs to a quasi-appliance status—it appears a new growth equilibrium is finally on the horizon. You have to wonder whether these rising Chromebook and Mac sales are a temporary blemish for Microsoft or a glimpse at a radical new future for computing.
Microsoft isn't giving up without a fight, though. Now that dirt-cheap Windows laptops and tablets are starting to hit the streets, sales of sub-$300 Windows notebooks increased a whopping 300 percent year-over-year this back-to-school season. NPD also noted that sales of 2-in-1 hybrid devices—a key focus in the Windows 8 era—accounted for 13 percent of Windows sales, a sixfold increase over 2013.