Is Windows 8 to blame for PC sales slump?

PC sales continue to decline after the launch of Windows 8. This surely means it's underperformed - but has it?

David Bayon
12 Apr 2013

The famous bald dome glistened under the stage lights as, dressed casually in an open-necked shirt and a red jumper, Steve Ballmer played the proud dad.

He declared the release "a rising tide that has helped lift all boats", and he wasn’t exaggerating: sales of PCs were up 50% on Black Friday, helping to make it "the best-selling OS in history," installed on 4% of computers in less than three weeks. Ballmer can come across as smug, but on this occasion he had good reason.

Alas, the reason was Windows 7 and the occasion CES 2010, occurring only months after critics had showered positive reviews on the new arrival.

After enduring several years of Vista, consumers were every bit as enthusiastic as Microsoft’s ebullient boss. That Christmas, a new OS represented both an escape and a leap forward – and often a new PC to celebrate.

Three years later, there was no Microsoft keynote at CES 2013, and it’s hard to know what Ballmer would have said if there had been.

In Windows 8’s first month, laptop sales were down 24% year on year and desktop sales were down 9%.

Party line

Remember the Windows 7 launch party? We've tried to forget it, but it’s etched on the backs of our eyelids.

One of the most awful, tick-all-the-ethnic-boxes promotional videos in YouTube history was merely the warm-up to something even more horrific: hosting your own quasi-sales event with the help of a Windows 7 "party pack" containing posters, playing cards, jigsaws and other tat.

Global PC sales for the final quarter of 2012 were down 4.9% according to Gartner and 6.4% according to IDC. Whichever analyst you asked, the conclusion was unmistakable: Windows 8 had failed to excite consumers.

That trend has continued. The latest PC figures from IDC show sales are down 14% in the first three months this year - the biggest decline since such records started being kept in 1994. The analyst firm said the sales lull was worse than usual because of confusion around Windows 8 devices.

"People think they have to have touch, and they go look at the price points for these touch machines, and they are above where they want to be and they say, 'I guess I'll wait'," says Bob O'Donnell, an analyst at IDC.

"Users are finding Windows 8 to offer a compromised experience that doesn't excel either as a new mobile interface or in a classic desktop interface," he adds. "As a result, many users find a decline in the traditional PC experience without gaining much from new features like touch. The result is that many consumers are worried about upgrading to Windows 8, to say nothing of business users who are still just getting into Windows 7."

But is that the whole story? It’s surely a stretch to lay the blame for the decline of an industry on a single piece of software, even one as pervasive as Windows, and it feels like an overly simplistic explanation. Dig beneath the surface and there’s a lot more to it.

The OS factor

A new Windows release is the catalyst for an end-of-year rise in PC sales. It’s a line that’s trotted out by both the industry and the media every few years, but, beyond the expected bump for Christmas, it doesn’t ring true.

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