PC sales suffered a 14 percent drop in the first quarter, the largest drop for a single quarter in the 20 years that IDC has been tracking the data. Fingers immediately began pointing at Windows 8, but the new Microsoft OS isn’t to blame—at least not in the way you might think.
Traditional PC sales are down. There’s no arguing that. However, it’s misguided to assume it’s the result of a failure on the part of Windows 8. Rather, it’s because the definition of “PC” is evolving.
In addition, Windows 8 runs well on older hardware and was offered at a bargain price. That means there has been less incentive to buy a new PC, even for users who wanted Windows 8. Many who did purchase new hardware for Windows 8 chose a Surface Pro, another tablet, or a tablet-PC hybrid. This skews the data because analysts aren’t tracking PCs and tablets as a unified market.
Don’t hate Windows 8
Windows 8 is a dramatic shift from earlier versions of Windows. Its Modern interface was designed with touch-enabled gadgets in mind, and Windows 8 is an attempt to straddle the line between a traditional PC and a tablet. Microsoft melds the two, but in a Jekyll-Hyde, split-personality way that many users aren’t comfortable with. Plus, of course, there’s no Start button (gasp!). Yet, Windows 8’s desktop mode is nearly identical to Windows 7, and you can easily simulate the Start button with a third-party add-on.
As popular opinion seems to hold, millions of people using older, slower PCs were itching to buy a new one, but decided not to because the radical new Windows 8 turned them off.
That’s doubtful. If it’s time for a new PC, you’re going to get one, and that’s separate from the decision to upgrade your OS.
Windows 8 may be to blame for the perception that PC sales are declining, but not because people hate it. The problem lies in how PCs are sold and how the PC market is measured. In a nutshell, Windows 8 sales don’t necessarily equate with PC sales.
Blame Microsoft’s great deal
If new processor, graphics or networking technologies are introduced, you’ll need new hardware to take advantage of them. You can upgrade your existing hardware incrementally, or buy a whole new PC that incorporates the new technology.
A new OS, however, doesn’t always require new hardware. New PCs will come pre-loaded with the newest OS, but that’s a fringe benefit. Most people don’t buy a whole new computer just to upgrade their OS.
It’s even more true with Windows 8 than with previous versions of Windows for two reasons. First, Microsoft went to great lengths to ensure that Windows 8 runs efficiently on minimal resources. It out-performs Windows 7 and works better on weaker, legacy hardware. Unless you really want a touchscreen, there may be no compelling reason to get a new PC with Windows 8.
Second, Microsoft offered a great deal with Windows 8. New versions of Windows are usually high enough to dissuade people from buying the OS by itself, swaying people to buy a new PC instead. Why pay $150 or more for the operating system alone if you can buy a whole new PC with that pre-installed for only $100 more?
Microsoft offered Windows 8 for only $40 in its first few months. At that price, it was a much easier decision just to buy the OS—especially if new hardware wasn’t required.
PC vendors have traditionally relied on a new Windows OS as a carrot to lure customers, but that’s a poor incentive, and not one PC vendors should depend upon. The PC itself has to offer some compelling reason to attract customers beyond their desire for the latest OS.
Define ‘personal computer’
The popular narrative follows that we’re in a “post-PC” era, in which tablets are going to kill off the PC. Ominous sales figures seem to support the theory.
However, this scenario is misleading. Tablets are personal computers, in fact, just a different size and shape than a traditional desktop or laptop PC. The tablet market can’t really kill the PC market, because tablets are the PC market.
Cue the tablet naysayers and PC purists. Despite stubborn assertions that tablets are no match for PCs, a tablet is perfectly capable of performing the functions most people use their PCs for. In many ways, the tablet is a better choice.
Then, there’s the “problem” of the Surface Pro and other Windows 8 Pro tablets. When IDC or other industry analysts consider PC sales versus tablet sales, is a Windows 8 Pro tablet a PC or a tablet? Technically it’s both, but a spokesperson confirmed that in the eyes of IDC if it can be detached from and used without a keyboard, it’s a tablet and is not counted in the PC sales data.
If the Surface Pro and other Windows 8 Pro tablets suddenly skyrocketed in sales, Windows 8 could dramatically increase in OS market share even as PC sales continue to plummet in relation to tablets, or what’s considered the overall personal computer market.
The combination of the fact that Windows 8 was offered so cheaply and runs fine on older hardware, and the fact that many of those buying new Windows 8 PCs will opt for tablets like the Surface Pro both adversely affect PC sales as they’re currently counted, but not necessarily because Windows 8 is unpopular or a bad tool.
Tony is principal analyst with the Bradley Strategy Group, providing analysis and insight on tech trends. He is a prolific writer on a range of technology topics, has authored a number of books, and is a frequent speaker at industry events.