Stagnant PC Sales: Can Windows 8 Redefine the Laptop?

The PC market just endured its seventh straight flat quarter — a scary statistic for Microsoft's Windows 8 plans. But the timing has never been better to save a market stuck in purgatory.

Research firm Gartner released PC sales numbers this week and year-over-year global PC shipments are as flat as a pancake. In the U.S., they're worse -- they dropped almost 6 percent.

It's a virtual dead zone out there in the PC space, with the nascent ultrabook category not catching on yet and many consumers and businesses just waiting around to see if Windows 8 has what it takes.

Global PC Shipments
(Image credit: Business Insider)

The global PC shipments in Q2 2012 decreased 0.1 percent from same period a year ago, according to Gartner research. Since the disruptive force and netbook killer known as the iPad released in April 2010, worldwide PC shipments have increased by only 5 percent.

The iPad's popularity is not the only reason for the PC hold up. The global economy is still weak and many businesses have finished up migrations to Windows 7 and are happy to sit tight.

In the U.S. the decrease in PC shipments for Q2 was worse than the flat global number. U.S. shipments for the quarter totaled 15.9 million, a 5.7 percent decline from the year before, according to Gartner.

The company attributes the U.S. slowdown to consumers' increasing lack of interest in PCs, which should scare Microsoft because for Windows 8 get a foothold in the enterprise on laptops, tablets or hybrids, consumers absolutely need to embrace it first, especially in this new BYOD (bring your own device) era.

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Yet the Windows 8 Metro interface presents such a different "look and feel" from previous versions of Windows that consumers could take a long time to warm up to Windows 8 if they warm up to it at all.

Another worry for Microsoft: Consumers are continuing to choose smartphones and tablets over laptops, according to Gartner, and PC vendors have therefore "reduced willingness to sell PCs due to other products and services that consumers are interested in."

Ultrabooks, the "new" category for thin and light laptops coined by Intel, were designed to save the laptop market from the great tablet invasion. But "despite the high expectations for Ultrabooks, shipment volume was small and little impact on overall shipment growth," says Mikako Kitagawa, principal analyst at Gartner, in a release.

However, there is still hope for Ultrabooks running Windows 8 as Gartner states that "major promotion of Ultrabooks could potentially change the market dynamics."

The entire PC market may be up in the air, but it also ripe for a transformation, which is the silver lining for Windows 8. The pending OS is designed for the kind of flexibility across devices that has long eluded Microsoft.

Windows 8 will work on ultrabooks, tablets and a new ultrabook/tablet hybrid form factor coming into view with devices from Acer, Asus and Lenovo. Windows 8 could very well be the glue to pull a fragmented market together and the timing of its launch -- Microsoft has confirmed late October -- is just about perfect.

What do you think? It's a tall order, but does Windows 8 have the versatility to change a listless PC market, skeptical consumers, and unfocused hardware makers?

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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