With PCs on death’s door, a last gasp

WASHINGTON — Computer makers are having a hard time giving PCs and laptops away.

Desktop and laptop computers are standing at death’s door, which is propped open by the growth of tablets and smartphones, technology analysts say.

But one year after the steepest decline ever in PC sales, the drastic drop has slowed, according to a new report by research firm IDC.

Worldwide PC shipments in the first quarter of 2014 fell 4.4 percent, slightly better than the projected decline of 5.3 percent.

IDC concludes that sales of PCs were driven by the impending end of Windows XP support, which they say forced consumers and businesses to buy new hardware.

Despite the stabilization, TheStreet’s Chris Ciaccia says the recent decision by Microsoft to make its popular Office suite available on Apple’s iPad is an indication of the future.

“People thought of laptops and PCs as content creators, and tablets were mostly for consumption,” says Ciaccia.

“Now that you can actually create content, really good content, with enterprise software on the iPad and eventually other tablets, this only furthers the trend that PC and laptop sales will continue to decline.”

The numbers back Ciaccia’s contention.

“Worldwide PC shipments have now declined for eight consecutive quarters as a result of shifting technology usage and competition, notably with tablets and smartphones,” says Loren Loverde, of IDC.

Ciaccia doesn’t think the drop in interest in desktops and laptops is a fluke: “I don’t think it’s going to decline drastically overnight, but it’s going to be a continual, gradual decline over the next few years.”

While some balk at the difficulty of typing on a tablet’s touch screen, Ciaccia says wireless keyboards that can be paired with iPads or other tablets generally cost less than $100.

“That still makes a tablet much cheaper than your average notebook or your average PC, and they’re so much more portable than a PC,” says Ciaccia.

The upside of laptops and desktops — for now

Not everyone thinks the death of the PC is imminent.

“We see tablets and smartphones continuing to eat PC sales, but they have a long way to go before they replace the PC,” says Bill Flook, tech and venture capital reporter for the Washington Business Journal.

“How many people can realistically perform the day-to-day functions of their job on an iPad?” says Flook. “Not nearly enough to eradicate PCs any time soon.”

Ciaccia says there are some benefits to owning a laptop or desktop.

“They’re still much more powerful than tablets,” says Ciaccia. “There’s much more storage. Most tablets run up to 128 gigs in memory, and then you have additional storage on the cloud, where you can get another 50 or 100 gigabytes worth of storage.”

Yet storing documents in one digital basket comes with risk.

“If something happens to the PC or laptop, and you have documents stored internally and it’s not on the cloud, there’s a really good chance you can lose those documents,” says Ciaccia.

“Aesthetics on laptops have certainly improved in the past few years, but they’re not where they need to be to actually overtake Apple, from a consumer-mindset standpoint,” says Ciaccia.

The limited future for PCs

Loverde, of IDC, says that the transition to more mobile devices and usage models is unlikely to stop, “although the short term impact on PC shipments may slow as tablet penetration rises, as we’ve seen in some mature regions.

“There is potential for PC shipments to stabilize, but not much opportunity for growth.”

Asked whether laptops are doomed to the same future as netbooks, which were launched in 2007 but made quickly irrelevant by the arrival of tablet computers, Ciaccia says that’s a tough call.

“I think there will always be a niche market for laptops. I think there will be a bigger market for PCs, simply because it’s really tough to break the enterprise market — I can’t see that changing in the next five years.”

Yet, as more tablets are geared toward business use, “more people will continue to buy tablets for their needs, as tablets become more powerful and storage on them gets better,” says Ciaccia.

“I don’t see laptops and PCs ever really going away, unless tablets become so powerful and so cheap to buy for enterprises that it really makes no sense to buy a PC or a laptop.”

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