PCs aren't dead yet. The machines will remain fixtures in the workplace, and Gartner expects more than 270 million units to be shipped in 2017 -- a steep 20.4% decline from 2012's disappointing 341 million, but a huge number nonetheless. Even so, the projections portend a major realignment to the tech world's pecking order, with one company particularly primed to lose ground: Microsoft.
Microsoft's vulnerability is simple. The company's empire is based partly on the fact that nine out of every 10 computers in the world run some version of Windows. If people start using other devices for tasks that used to fall to PCs, Windows will cease to be a dominant OS outside the workplace. Microsoft hasn't yet shown that it can contend in the new, mobility-oriented bring-your-own-device (BYOD) market, and with iOS and Android already entrenched and alternatives such as Chromebooks entering the field, Redmond could face a marketplace in which it is a player but not a global superpower.
Gartner's prognostications align in many ways with an IDC report issued late last month that forecasts tablets will soon surpass PCs in total sales. That said, IDC was as of early March still predicting that PCs would return to modest growth by 2014. Gartner's harsher prediction could therefore be taken with some skepticism -- but given that PC outlooks have grown progressively worse over the last six months, it's difficult to dismiss the latest projections.
[ What do we know so far about Microsoft's upcoming Windows update? Read Windows Blue: What We Know. ]
Some industry watchers had initially interpreted 2012's faltering PC sales as a byproduct of unfavorable economic conditions. Those conditions were supposed to improve once Windows 8 hit the market and once consumers began buying new computers for the holidays. When neither Microsoft's new OS nor the holidays managed to reverse the PC's downward trajectory, analysts began viewing the industry's recovery prospects with increasing pessimism. Sagging PC popularity, in other words, has come to be seen less as an economic condition and more as a shift in user preferences.
In an interview, Gartner research VP Carolina Milanesi said that PCs have suffered from the popularity of cheap, small tablets, which she said satisfy most users' primary computing needs, such as Web browsing, social media interactions and reading the news and other content. She predicted that as traditional PCs become relegated primarily to work-related tasks, many will view the machines as less and less a part of their daily lives. Such consumers, Milanesi said, will feel decreasing pressure to regularly upgrade PCs, opting instead to replace tablets and smartphones while allowing desktops and laptops to grow long in tooth.
With more devices vying for attention, Microsoft thus finds itself in an entirely new situation. "In the good old days, if you walked into a store to get a PC, guess what -- you were going to get a Microsoft device 90% of the time. There wasn't a conscious choice," Milanesi noted. Now, she says, customers will be greeted not only by Windows offerings but also by Chromebooks, Android and iOS tablets, OS X PCs and more. Windows isn't the default option it once was.