Windows 8 Did Not Cause PC Sales Slump

Blaming Windows 8 for the PC market's ongoing woes misses the bigger picture.
You might've heard this week that PC sales are tumbling downhill. Rest assured, this is definitely the case -- and the decline will continue. What may also happen is that some companies will see their market position crash and burn along the way.

You might also have heard that Windows 8 is to blame for all this -- and that assertion is harder to defend. Microsoft hasn't helped, but the PC's free fall involves bigger forces than Win8's inauspicious first six months.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting we exonerate Microsoft. Windows 8 has definitely underperformed. One could try to defend the OS by pointing out that touch-enabled hardware was too costly, but if electronics-buyers were really champing at the bit for tactile-minded Windows 8 models, products such as the Surface RT and Surface Pro would have made bigger waves. It's possible that Windows Blue could inject some life into the market. But that was the same hope that analysts had for Windows 8 before it entered the holiday season. Consumers were overwhelmingly indifferent to the new options during their annual gift-giving, so even though Windows Blue will help, it's unlikely to compel a massive shift.

[ Will price cuts help? Read Windows 8 Tablets: Why Microsoft Must Slash Prices. ]

Wall Street seems to agree; as soon as IDC and Gartner announced their grim PC forecasts, investors started dumping Microsoft, HP, Intel and others rooted in traditional computing. The stock market is a capricious beast but the reaction is reasonable. The three companies I named are all diverse enough to absorb shrinking PC sales. Though tablets are taking over, traditional laptops and desktops will continue to generate revenue for years to come -- just not as much revenue as they do now. But while the survival of Microsoft and its partners isn't at risk, their clout is on much shakier ground. A world in which Qualcomm, Android, and iOS will have the influence to match Intel and Windows is very different from the de facto monopolies that have reigned for more than a decade.

Even so, it's clear in retrospect that Windows 8 couldn't have done more than mitigate the damage. That it ended up exacerbating matters is unfortunate for Microsoft, but the conventional PC was already a boat taking on water. The tide has turned toward tablets and there aren't many good reasons to think that will change. Windows 8's Live Tile-focused attitude actually testifies to this fact, but even if Microsoft had applied more effort to refining the desktop, would it have actually made a difference?

The answer is no. PCs have always been capable of doing more than what most people used them for. Tablets, by virtue of their mobile-friendliness if not their more intuitive UIs, handle users' most frequent activities -- Web browsing, email, games, consuming media, etc. -- better than PCs do. Smart mobile devices have provided more meaningful generational improvements in recent years than laptops have, and they're generally very affordable. It's therefore unsurprising that consumers are replacing more of their old PCs with tablets than with new, expensive Ultrabooks.

Consumers still need PCs, of course. Word processing, the hype for an iOS version of Office notwithstanding, is still a compromised experience on a tablet. It's not impossible to create compelling content on iOS or Android, but most options are pretty watered down compared to their Windows or OS X equivalents. Smartphone users seem pretty content with Instagram, for example, but I'm sure I'm just one of millions who will keep buying PCs as long as it's the only real option for Photoshop, After Effects and other high-performance, hobbyist-friendly software.

Moreover, businesses will still be buying PCs in huge volumes. Salespeople, doctors and educators are among those who've quickly found ways to use tablets to improve professional workflows, and tablets will creep into additional business applications over time. But it's not clear that all business tasks can even be translated to a touch-friendly UI, and even if ubiquitous benefits were obvious, enterprises aren't known for rapidly redefining their IT ecosystems.

Still, it's clear that PCs no longer are the only type of computing device the people care about. And there are going to be more choices and options becoming available in the coming months and years. Indeed, it's worth noting that Windows 8's fate isn't intrinsically bound to that of the PC. Redmond and its partners will continue to push out clamshell Ultrabooks and even touchscreen-equipped desktops, so the PC isn't an irrelevant factor in Win8's success. But as Microsoft's rumored plan for a 7-inch Surface attests, the company knows short-term Windows 8 adoption lies in affordable tablets, not $1,000 laptops.

Whether consumers will care about these forthcoming options is debatable, of course, but Microsoft's efforts to distance Windows 8 from traditional computing are an acknowledgement that PC sales will continue to slide downhill. Redmond might've done more to slow the momentum but the company is hardly at fault for the shift in marketplace dynamics. The more appropriate -- and controversial -- issue is whether Microsoft is making the right moves to keep pace.