Reports of 19% decline in Western European PC market show structural change

As if we needed telling, a new Gartner report shows a steep decline in the PC market in Western Europe. A “PC” in this context includes Macs but excludes smartphones and what Gartner called “media tablets”, mostly Apple iPads. A few figures comparing shipments in the second quarter 2011 with the same period in 2010:

  • Total PC sales down 18.9%
  • Netbook sales down 53%
  • Desktop PCs down 15.4%
  • Apple up 0.5%
  • Consumer PC market down 27%

What interests me here is not so much the normal ebbing and flowing of the PC market, but structural change indicating a switch away from PCs and laptops to more lightweight mobile devices. I believe this is evidence of that, though the economy is weak and extending the life of existing PCs is an obvious saving both for businesses and consumers.

Still, the dramatic decline in netbook sales suggests that consumers really are buying the more expensive iPad in preference. If you believe that consumers are to some extent ahead of business in their technology choices, then we can expect more of the same in the corporate market too.

No doubt alarm bells have been ringing in Microsoft’s Redmond headquarters for some time. The company is betting on Windows 8 to rescue its operating system from permanent decline, which is why next month’s BUILD conference is so critical. Nevertheless, it will be a year or so before we get new-style tablets running Windows 8, so will it be too late? I tend to think not, just because of the strength of Microsoft in the business world and the importance of Windows for existing applications, but it is interesting to speculate.

One factor which you can argue either way, in terms of Microsoft’s prospects, is that non-iPad tablets seem to be struggling. HP’s TouchPad and RIM’s PlayBook seem to be selling poorly. Google Android looks more hopeful though overshadowed by legal concerns from multiple sources. In Australia and parts of Europe Apple has successfully barred or delayed sales of Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 10.1, though the latest news is that the ban has been lifted outside Germany.

See also: Fumbling tablet computing – Microsoft’s biggest mistake?

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