Arik Hesseldahl

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Apple: Sorry About That Whole Shrinking PC Market Thing; Well, Not Really

Gartner and IDC are out with their quarterly look at the state of the PC market and the results are not pretty–that is, unless you’re Apple.

In a repeat of a trend seen last quarter, both firms report that the market shrank in the first quarter of the year. This would constitute the first market contraction in six quarters, and the first since the onset of the recession. They differ, however, on the size of that contraction: IDC pegs it at 3.2 percent since the first quarter of 2010; Gartner at 1.1 percent.

To be fair, let’s remember that the first quarter of the year is always seasonably slow for PC purchases because two things tend to happen in the fourth quarter: Consumers splurge on gifts for family and frankly for themselves too, and take advantage of crazy deals offered by retailers desperate to clear out their inventory. On the business side, some CIOs take the opportunity to use up unspent funds in their budgets, and get employees starting off the new year with a fresh new machine at their desks. However, this tendency is just as often offset by the start of a new budget year. Whichever way you slice it, the first quarter is always weak on consumer sales though a bit stronger on the enterprise side.

So what happened? The iPad 2, for one thing. “With the launch of the iPad 2 in February, more consumers either switched to buying an alternative device, or simply held back from buying PCs,” is how Mikako Kitagawa, principal analyst at Gartner, put it. “We’re investigating whether this trend is likely to have a long-term effect on the PC market.” Ya think?

Bob O’Donnell, IDC’s vice president for Clients and Displays, wasn’t quite as willing to blame the iPad: “Slower than expected commercial growth in the first quarter failed to offset the ongoing challenges in the consumer market,” he said in a statement. “While it’s tempting to blame the decline completely on the growth of media tablets, we believe other factors, including extended PC lifetimes and the lack of compelling new PC experiences, played equally significant roles.”

Jay Chou, another IDC analyst put it much more succinctly: “‘Good-enough computing’ has become a firm reality.”

The picture gets no better when you look at regional results. IDC says shipments declined in the U.S. by 10 percent. Gartner pegged it at 6 percent. It was, Gartner noted, the third consecutive quarter for year-on-year declines in U.S. notebook sales. Shipments in Europe contracted too, and Japan, which was already expected to be a weak market this quarter, has other things on its mind since the devastating earthquake and tsunami. Asia was the only bright spot, where shipments increased by 5.6 percent in IDC’s forecast and 4.1 percent in Gartner’s. China, IDC noted, failed to reach double-digit growth, and consumers in India, Gartner says, were distracted by the Cricket World Cup. Okay, then.

So how do the numbers look? Since IDC’s forecast is the most dire, I’ll start there:

The worldwide demand for PCs was 80.6 million units. Hewlett-Packard sold 15.2 million; Dell, which just made it back to second place, shipped 10.3 million; Acer 9 million; Lenovo 8.2 million; Toshiba 4.8 million; while “others” clocked 33 million. All vendors except for Lenovo saw declines. The worst decline was Acer’s, whose shipments fell nearly 16 percent. (Now we know why its CEO Gianfranco Lanci lost his job.) Lenovo, on the other hand, saw its shipments improve by more than 16 percent.

Demand in the U.S. was 16.1 million. HP led with 4.3 million, Dell 3.7 million, Toshiba 1.6 million, Apple 1.4 million and Acer 1.3 million. Unnamed others sold 3.7 million. Acer saw its shipments fall by an alarming 42 percent. Apple and Toshiba posted gains of 9.6 and 10.4 percent respectively. HP and Dell both saw declines.

Now let’s look at Gartner’s numbers (remember that each firm tracks the market a little differently):

Gartner pegged the worldwide market at 84.2 million units. It says HP sold 14.8 million, Acer 10.9 million, Dell 10 million, Lenovo 8.2 million, Toshiba 4.8 million. (Clearly there’s a difference in how they see Acer and Lenovo’s performances.)

In the U.S., Gartner estimated the market at 16.1 million units. By its reckoning, HP sold 4.2 million, Dell 3.6 million, Acer 1.8 million, Toshiba 1.7 million, Apple 1.5 million, others 3.3 million.