There are many reasons for the recent PC sales slump

Windows 8 is not the direct cause for poor PC sales, and to suggest this is simply sensationalism. True, the operating system received cool reception from some people, but most  don't realize that Microsoft had little choice to do what it did. The company distributed the first Preview during the BUILD developer conference in autumn 2011, and I immediately recognized what was going on. Windows 8 is all about touch and mobile. Mobile touch devices are replacing computers among many consumers. Microsoft likely saw this and had to do something. That something is Windows 8. I discuss this consumerization of the PC market in my late-March BetaNews story.

What some people fail to appreciate is that a PC is more than a consumer device. Windows is more than a mobile operating system. It is very complex, designed for heavy-duty work. Microsoft had one of two choices: Create a totally new operating system for mobile and leave Windows as is; merge a mobile operating system into Windows so it is a hybrid. That the company chose the latter is ingenious, but risky. Likely we won't know until years from now whether or not Microsoft wisely, but it is a noble undertaking nonetheless.

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But I think one should differentiate between the problems Windows 8 faces and the problems the PC market is facing. They are two different things, which simply overlap.

The fallout of the PC market is long overdue and should have been expected. Why?

PCs haven't changed much over the last 10 years. Yes, they may have slightly better CPUs, a bit more RAM and bigger hard drives, but they really don't offer all that much more for users. This is likely why many businesses still use Windows XP. Face it, nearly 40 percent of business PC's still run XP and that is three OS generations back. Current PCs don't offer all that much more than XP computers and with the right software a XP computer could last another 10 years. While consumers will throw away perfectly good electronics for the latest fad, businesses can ill-afford this. Consumers are moving towards mobile, so Microsoft has little choice but to push mobile and touch.

Windows Mobile Devices face some Problems

The next problem has to do with the switch from desktops to mobile. Mobile devices are more expensive. Most low-cost Android devices (less than $100) are very, very limited. The better mobile devices start at the price level of a cheap PC. But PCs offer more and require more, so adding touch to PC's has challenges. Modern laptops can be upgraded with new memory, hard drives and batteries, but most mobile devices (tablets) cannot be, not even memory or batteries. Look at the iPad. It has the worse rating for repair or upgrading. It is a throw away device and it costs $500!

The Windows world is different. Moving to mobile is not easy and has many challenges and this first generation of Windows 8 devices is simply testing the waters to see what sticks and what doesn't. So what is sticking and what is not?

Two issues come to the fore. First,  x86 backward compatibility. This is critical and must be taken into consideration. Why? Because the business market demands it. Consumers may tolerate the lack of backward compatibility, but businesses won't. So time will tell how well Windows RT does and it may well succeed with consumers, but the second problem I believe has been more critical and that is Price.

This may be why Lenovo is doing so well, while other PC makers are not. Lenovo caters to lower price brackets quite well. I recently bought a Windows 8 laptop and the ones with touch were just too expensive, so deciding to opt for one without touch I simply tried to buy something that gave me more for my money. I ended up with a Lenovo laptop, 15.6-inch screen with decent specs and only for $299 at Best Buy online. I am a software developer and even to me, price matters.

The non-Microsoft mobile market is being broken up into two sectors. The high end (iPad, Google Nexus, etc.) and the low-end (Android devices in the $100 or less range). For Windows devices, the ones that make Windows 8 shine are all high-end products and with a poor economy, they just aren't selling well. I purchased a Windows 7 tablet (and upgraded to Windows 8) , but only because it was on sale for $300 off (originally $699, but on sale for $399), which was my ExoPC.

The shakeout in the PC market may have more to do with a saturated market and prices. Lenovo may be one of the few PC makers who see this. Acer and Asus saw this in the Netbook hay-day, but Netbooks fell out of favor. Rather than lowering prices, they kept trying to find ways to raise the prices on Netbooks. But one thing was for sure. Price mattered then and still does.

Windows 8 isn't to Blame

To blame the PC sales woes all on Windows 8 is wrong and not fair. The entire industry has to take some share of the blame and with the economy problems, doesn't anyone just simply ask the question, why not help people save money if possible. That is what I did for my customers when I use to do consulting and custom programming. I tried to find ways to extend the life of their computers and ways to use less expensive equipment. I have seen some of my customers continue to use DOS applications I developed for them for as long as possible, far beyond what most would have expected.

The price for touch needs to come down. Just look at the prices for touch-enabled monitors. I found a great deal on a 22-inch touch-enabled monitor that supports two touch points only and uses an optical system, rather than capacitive. I got the monitor for $249 and it works great with Windows 7 and touch. Most touch monitors for use with Windows 8 cost $500 or more. Way too expensive.

Many manufacturers or retailers push HD displays and 10-point touch on Windows mobile devices and you can't touch (pardon the pun) one of these for less than $500 and some are in the $800 or more range. No matter what anyone thinks, price matters. This may be why Apple came out with the iPad mini (not only smaller size, but also price) and they also sell the previous generations of iPad for a discount. Some buyers just want a fair deal, especially businesses.

The PC Market is Changing

Computers will likely continue to decrease in sales and will gravitate more towards business users. That's where PCs really got their start, as business tools.The desktop PC is not going anywhere, it is just they may find their nitch with business users rather than consumers. Sales likely will continue to drop, but this should be expected. That is not Microsoft's fault, nor Windows 8. Consumers want ease of use, smaller devices, portable devices so new markets will result for non-PC devices, whether it be tablets, bigger smart phones or streaming media devices.

Tablets are the rage right now, but here price is what will really matter in the long run. Windows OE's need to target the $200 price point for a 7-inch tablet running real Windows 8 (not RT). That is the sweet spot for Windows tablets. They don't need to be high definition or state of the art, but just sound mobile devices. Some business users will demand more powerful tablets, but many could do a lot with less. Simply put, price matters even with tablets.

The Windows 8 x86 Advantage

Backward compatibility is one of Windows biggest strengths and needs to be brought to the fore.I understand the reasons for Windows RT and ARM devices, but Windows x86 has something far more valuable and that is backward compatibility.

One company I would watch carefully is Intel. Do not underestimate the mighty chipmaker. Intel is on the right track. The Atom SOC (system on a chip) line continues to get better and better with each new generation, with more power and better battery life. While a bit expensive, Intel's StudyBook concept is on the mark. The company even has its own app store (for low-resolution devices like Netbooks) called AppUp, which also targets the current market needs, encouraging developers too.

Software developers are partly to blame for the state we are in. Windows has had touch for some time now and Windows 7 is nearly as powerful with touch as is Windows 8, but few developers target touch in Desktop apps. Now give me a low-cost Windows 8 (or 7) seven-inch tablet and I would be able to start writing apps for it immediately -- and they can run on Windows XP as well, but taking advantage of touch when it is there.

Software needs to be better, more dynamic. It is possible to write software that dynamically adjusts to the system it runs on. Call it "smart" software if you will and Windows is well-suited to doing this. Software for Windows needs to be designed for multiple versions of Windows from XP to Windows 8, dynamically changing itself based on the version. Software needs to tap into the core WIN32 APIs so it can perform better with less hardware, with a smaller footprint. Don't think this is possible? I work with a development system that can do this, and the entire development system is only about 20MB in size.

The Windows operating system has some amazing core features that allow software to be truly dynamic. For example, one can actually poll the operating system DLLs to see what features and APIs are available and use different APIs on different versions of Windows as needed. Yes, Windows software can be written to be dynamic, smart if you will.

I see Windows 8 as a positive step forward, but I still appreciate the value of backward compatibility. It is cost-effective. I am still excited about Windows 8, but want to push the Desktop side to its limits, which has not seen its full potential yet. While the Modern UI side of Windows 8 may appeal to consumers, the Desktop side of Windows 8 is still alive and has yet to be fully tapped by developers. The possibilities for the Desktop side for business and education are endless.

Windows 8 is only in Its Infancy, give It Time

Windows 8 is a bold new step for Microsoft, and it will take time to mature. Windows RT will likely find its own nitch, possibly with consumers only, but the Desktop will continue to be the workhorse for business. It should not be a matter of saying whether Windows 8 is a success or failure. Windows 8 is new, different, but at the same time the old and familiar is still there (the Desktop). Currently backward compatibility is very good on the Desktop side. In time, even Microsoft may realize how valuable this side of Windows really is.

The Desktop in Windows is a diamond in the rough that simply needs to be fine-tuned even more, not abandoned. The potential for both sides of Windows 8 is staggering. The range of devices that Windows 8 could run is also quite staggering. Hardware manufacturers simply need to be more practical and creative. New form factors may yet appear, but price still matters.

Computer hardware can ill-afford to be viewed as throw away anymore. Rather it too needs to be just as dynamic as the software needs to be. Mobile devices need to be upgradeable and repairable too. Windows has a long heritage it can leverage and it should be prepared for the long haul, maturing as needed.

Photo Credit: Mopic/Shutterstock

Chris Boss is an advanced Windows API programmer and developer of 10 year-old EZGUI, which is now version 5. He owns The Computer Workshop, which opened for businesses in the late 1980s. He originally developed custom software for local businesses. Now he develops programming tools for use with the PowerBasic compiler.

29 Responses to There are many reasons for the recent PC sales slump

  1. MSFTmanJosh says:

    This is probably the best article I have read in a long time. Very unbiased and true. Thanks for a great article Mr.Boss.

  2. Dwedit says:

    I blame the Core 2 Duo for the PC sales slump. It was the first really good Intel CPU, and you don't really need to upgrade beyond it (except for CPU killers like Flash). If you were stuck on Pentium 4 machines, then those were slow, and you needed to upgrade. But not so much if you had Core 2 Duo or better.

    Also Windows XP is nice, and you don't really need to upgrade beyond it, at least until Microsoft pulls the plug on security fixes next year.

  3. marcin says:

    1. "PCs haven't changed much over the last 10 years" - of yes, they have changed in various areas for much worse. LCDs are using LEDs and it's flickering (with old CCFL it was unavailable), VGA connectors even in good notebooks are producing flickering (because of cheap components), you can't buy non panoramic displays, almost everywhere you have only cheap integrated sound cards (which are producing plastic sound without 3D effects like in old SB cards) and non-matt screens/covers (even if screen is marked as matt, it's much worse than few years ago)... Notebooks with silent cooling systems are not also not popular, you have even more DRM too (like Secure Boot) not openess. Result of it are drops of sales...

    2. Windows 8 should be blamed partially - Microsoft could display Metro (I use this name, because Modern is not good word for many of them) apps in windows and it could resolve many problems, currently such apps displayed in 24" monitors are simple too primitive. MS decided to remove 3D even in "old" desktop and leave old NT problems and this is result...of W8 popularity

  4. Don't fear the future says:

    Great article.

  5. view2share says:

    Touch is NOT good for desktop. Actually, it is impossible. To reach out to touch instead of using a mouse is borderline absurd. If you hold your arms out long enough, the strain on shoulders, neck, and arms is terrible. There is a reason for the wonder tool sitting on the desktop where your arm and wrist can rest. This wonder tool, the mouse, is very precision. As for desktop sales, if you have Windows 7 or a Mac, just what new OS is required to be used with your current software. The CPU and Video Cards need not be faster for Internet surfing - browsers. For Windows, I can certainly wait for a more useable version before buying another computer, with NO reason on earth to " so called " update to Win 8. I think the Windows Phone looks kinda cool with Win 8. The tablets are, well ya know tablets. I have the Nexus7 which works fine for a small tablet, and would buy an iPad if I went large. Sadly, it looks like poor ol' Microsoft is losing in tablet, and phones as well. Kinda late to the party. Maybe an updated Blue or Win9 will be the ticket to success. My latest PC buy was a Mac Mini, and for phones, I am thinking of getting the Samsung or iPhone, with Nokia Lumia a distant third in consideration. I do like what Skydrive is today, and Outlook.com is a step forward.

  6. johnrc2 says:

    More thought and insight went into this article than most articles I have read on BN and other tech blogs lately. Most writing blindly interpret the numbers coming out of some trade group. You are looking at what's behind the numbers. I am both a business and consumer user. I expect and use business functionality in my computer. I keep going back to PC's for the functionality I can't find in tablets. I have a Microsoft Surface Pro. What I like about it is the convenience of a tablet, but with the power of a PC.

  7. romath says:

    Chris, I agree with much of your main argument, above all its sanity, at least until the end when it becomes scattershot, However, I think you mistake a few things:

    1) tablets have a market naturally circumscribed by its inherently limited usefulness. That market is far from saturated, but will be in a few years.

    2) Once the tablet fad runs out, desktops and laptops will see some reemergence and stabilize at a higher share of the market.

    3) Microsoft's move with Win 8 was not ingenious or bold, it was the result of feeling trapped by their own mobile hardware and software strategy. Touch has no foreseeable future on desktops and laptops because it doesn't work there physically, that is, not until humans evolve a different shoulder/arm construction. At the same time - and I think this is probably what you meant - MS couldn't release a desktop 8 that looked like 7 and expect the desktop/laptop crowd would upgrade. Win 8 on a desktop/PC, using the Win 7 desktop, is a considerable improvement over Win 7, but without a lot of word of mouth that was going to be a hard sell. Hence, they were caught in their own vice.

    4) Microsoft is pissing off a lot of people with their new subscription policies/costs, I suspect in the long run business most of all. I also suspect with the demise of XP support, we're going to see corporations looking for cheaper OS/Office alternatives and hence there will be a big opening for development in the alternative OS and Office market.

  8. chrisboss says:

    Actually, touch on the desktop can be useful, but it does not replace the mouse and keyboard. Touch has the advantage of multiple touch points at one time, unlike the mouse which can only respond to one point at a time. I have a Windows 7 (not 8) PC with a 22 inch touch enabled monitor and for some apps (like photo gallery style) it is pretty nice. But for real work, little does better than a mouse (or maybe a pen on a drawing pad).

    • psycros says:

      Multiple touch points are nice for finger painting. For everything else you need a precision tool. Not to mention that any high-end drawing or CAD type program lets you create dozens of individual "handles" for manipulating virtual objects, which is far easier than trying to do it in real time with every digit on your hand.

  9. John Smith says:

    "that Microsoft had little choice to do what it did"

    BS! So you had iOS on phones and tablets but OS X on Mac's...you still do. You had Android on phones and tablets and Chrome OS on computers...you still do.

    So Microsoft has a good even great new phone OS and Windows 7. So what do they do rev the phone OS and introduce a ARM based version of Windows 8 (RT) that is not really the phone OS on a bigger device but something in between the phone OS and x86 Windows on a tablet..but wait they have that (x86) on a tablet as well and guess what you are FORCED to use a tablet interface on computers now, desktop and laptops.

    FAIL +10000

    They should have released Windows Mobile 7 (not phone) and one year later allow tablet size devices to run Windows Mobile 7 (ARM based). This would have been inline with iOS and Android. EVERYONE was asking for this back when Windows Phone 7 launched and for months after that. The apps were coming in for this platform why introduce yet another (Windows RT).

    Then rev Windows Mobile too version 8 and release Windows 8, minus the retartded Metro BS at the same time......just like their two other competitors that are killing them in the mobile space.

    Windows 8 minus the Metro crap but with all of the new improved features. At the same time PUSH really hard on the skydrive tie in with Windows Mobile, Office apps across all....etc.

    Now we just have a train wreck of BS.

  10. BrickEngraver says:

    A few comments. First of all the slowing of the PC market is not because of Windows 8. You are absolutely correct. MS had to move to touch. You are absolutely correct. Intel SOC that will run x86 programs is going to usher in a whole new opportunity for creative productive software and Windows 8 allows that kind of software to be used on a wide variety of form factors.
    I myself think that xp really is awful and the desktop experience in Windows 8 is really superior than that of Windows 7. It is also far more efficient-I just put it on an old desktop and it is significantly faster and more stable than xp ever was (or Win 7). It is a bit of a disconnect with two browsers, etc., but I find myself at least as productive in the Win 8 desktop as in Win 7. MS would be very wise to continue to serve people on both sides of the aisle. And I think many traditional desktop apps can be very useful on touch devices. For just one example, I would love to have touch on our SCADA system instead of constantly finding the mouse and navigating on the screen to control something. Developers have just not done touch very well-but they can with Windows 8. I can see many Office13 apps being created that would be great on touch.
    As far as touch on a desktop or especially on a laptop/hybrid (which these days are as powerful as most desktops), I do not see any reason why a combination of touch and mouse and keyboard cannot be made to blend well. The reason Windows 8 machines are not selling well besides the reasons you cite, is that there are not enough touch enabled machines out there. I personally will never buy another laptop without a touch screen. And I will bet that Apple's next laptop will implement it. But when they do, it will be viewed as being great. And one must remember that macs also saw a drop in sales. And that was not because of Windows 8.

  11. ilev says:

    Only Windows 8 is to blame.

    • WillyThePooh says:

      MS needs backward compatibility for its business partners. It can't dump its cash cow and hopes iPad and Android users will rush to surface tablet and compensate it.

  12. psycros says:

    "Windows 8 is not the direct cause for poor PC sales, and to suggest this is simply sensationalism."

    Over 90% of PCs run Windows. The dramatic slump in PC sales started precisely when Windows 8 was released. Almost every manufacturer blames Windows 8 for the dramatic decline.

    "True, the operating system received cool reception from some people, but
    most don't realize that Microsoft had little choice to do what it did."

    Its been received poorly by virtually everyone - that's why nobody is buying it. Certainly we know Metro is universally despised, but the worst part is how the flat minimalistic design has infected the Windows desktop. It cripples usability with graphic vagueness and the removable of key controls like the start menu. We all know these were huge mistakes and the debate on this has been over for quite a while now. Thanks to their hubris and stupidity Microsoft has burned through what little consumer goodwill it had remaining.

    "Windows 8 is all about touch and mobile. Mobile touch devices are replacing computers among many consumers."

    Wrong again. Touch devices are supplementing the PC. Suggestions to the contrary are not only laughable but border on journalistic malfeasance.

    "PCs haven't changed much over the last 10 years. Yes, they may have
    slightly better CPUs, a bit more RAM and bigger hard drives, but they
    really don't offer all that much more for users. This is likely why many
    businesses still use Windows XP. Face it, nearly 40 percent of business
    PC's still run XP and that is three OS generations back. Current PCs
    don't offer all that much more than XP computers and with the right
    software a XP computer could last another 10 years."

    Its Windows that hasn't changed much over the last ten years, at least not in any positive way. The reason nobody is upgrading their PC is because each version of Windows since XP has offered decreasing value compared to the previous release. With Vista, Microsoft brought us the Aero desktop and the sidebar (a great idea that Microsoft completely bungled and never gave its due). With Windows 7 we saw some interesting new desktop tricks like jump lists and Aero peek...and little else except compatibility issues and, in many cases, inferior performance compared to XP. With Windows 8 we lost most of the usability advances of the previous decade and were saddled with a useless, disorganized and ugly touchscreen front-end. The consumer and the enterprise have rejected it completely - again, the debate is over on this and there is no way to game the numbers to refute the sad reality. Anyone who's still saying that Windows 8 isn't a disaster for both Microsoft and the industry is either mentally unstable or has a vested interest in Microsoft's success. In either case these people have no business polluting the web with their deranged idiocy.

  13. oomingmak says:

    "Windows 8 is only in Its Infancy, give It Time!"

    Why the hell should we?

    If Windows 8 is in it's "infancy" and it needs "time" to become ready, then keep it in house until it's adequately developed and don't foist such ill-conceived immature software onto the paying public (who don't want to be lab rats for Microsoft's OS experiments).

    It is utterly ridiculous that you think we should have to accommodate Microsoft. We are the customer's, so Microsoft should be accommodating us!

  14. WillyThePooh says:

    A cell phone can have removable battery and I don't see why tablet can't. Also, I expect to see I could swap memory in tablet like swapping SD card. Also, price has to be dropped. Also MS app store has to be changed too. When my language preference is Canadian, I got only 100 games in store. If I switch to US, I got over 3000 games. What's the difference between Canada and US that deserves such a big difference in apps?

  15. chrisboss says:

    Whether we like Windows 8 or not, the PC market is going through a dramatic change which simply can not be stopped. Microsoft, IMO had little choice but to do something. Mobile and touch are new market and Windows 8 attempts to address this. This change is far more drastic than the one from DOS to GUI based OS and far more challenging. Sadly some will not be happy with this change. Windows 8 is a hybrid OS, rather than one specific to mobile, so there will be those who will feel that it did not go far enough while others will feel it went too far. The reality is that those who appreciate its hybrid nature will most likely see its value. It is not perfect and it will likely mature in time (it is something new, so consider it a first generation of its kind for Microsoft).

  16. chrisboss says:

    I would not say that "nobody is buying it"
    I read one article about Surface Pro and it is getting very good reviews by some. Some like myself took advantage of the low price offer to upgrade which I did immediately for my Windows tablet and it is a much better tablet experience than Windows 7. I recently purchase a low cost Lenovo Windows 8 laptop and am happy with it. But developers like myself may have an advantage over many users since we have been exposed to Windows 8 since the Build conference in 2011. I have been playing with Windows 8 for nearly a year and a half now. I even installed it on a desktop and it worked well. Once you get past the start screen, the desktop is still there and alive and well. On a desktop keyboard shortcuts offer a better experience than the mouse in the start screen area. I am not saying it is perfect, but it is quite usable, even on a desktop, and not as bad as many suggest. For your info: my primary PC is running Windows Vista. I have an XP desktop which used to be my mainstay for about 8 years (but recent had some crashes, so no longer used as primary system, so using it as a test system only now), a Windows 7 tablet upgraded to Windows 8, a Windows 7 laptop (only 3.4 lbs) and now a Windows 8 (non-touch) laptop. Most of my work is done on a desktop, but I see how important mobile is.

  17. Anthony Clark says:

    I blame the rise in virtualization. Many places that would have ordered palettes of computers just just thin clients instead. The return to server/terminal is what has done this.

  18. When Steve Jobs' tablets started making mark against PC without MacOSX(iPad used iOS), the only question was whether the portable devices will ever become just as personal. Microsoft responded by porting PC OS onto the form-factor. Now its upto the app-makers to make tablets useful on more "personal" levels.. On older form-factors everything todo was history, so making the tablet into PC was doing what needed to be done at the time, regardless of how MS's noteworthy attempt fares.

  19. evan2k says:

    "One company I would watch carefully is Intel. Do not underestimate the mighty chipmaker..." As I have noted long time ago, Intel will win the mobile war for Microsoft. Watch an see, what happens next year, when then next gen processors by Intel get into tablets and phones.

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