Don't blame free Windows 10 for PC business ills

PC shipments will continue to contract during 2015, but it won't be the fault of the Windows 10 free upgrade, research firm IDC said today.

"It's all about how you look at it," Loren Loverde, an analyst at IDC, said in an interview today. "The first half of this year is much more negative than the second half, and in 2016, things should stabilize more than in the past four years. So in a sense, Windows 10 is definitely contributing to the PC market."

IDC's latest forecast -- the first since November -- predicts a 6.2% downturn for the year, about three times that of 2014, for the fourth straight year of declines. OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) will ship 289 million personal computers this year, a drop of about 7 million from the prior projection.

"But the free [Windows 10] upgrade reduces the need for a new PC, and IDC expects many consumers will continue to prioritize spending on phones, tablets, and wearable devices like the Apple Watch during the holiday season," IDC said in a statement accompanying the new forecast.

Loverde clarified that today.

"There's more of the history and cycles that we didn't put in the [press release]," said Loverde. "What's lost is that while Microsoft has traditionally been so closely tied to the PC market, it misses the point that the market is moving to mobile devices."

In other words, the fact that Microsoft will give away a Windows 10 upgrade to consumers and many small businesses for one year after the public launch of the OS won't be a factor, or at least one that will matter, given the traumatic downturn in PC shipments and the rapid rise of mobile -- mostly smartphones, but also tablets.

"In the big picture, it wouldn't have made much difference if Microsoft had charged for Windows 10 upgrades," argued Loverde. "The more important reason for free is to integrate the installed base across the platform, move to the integrated environment and modernize the installed base. There are fringe benefits from free."

The fact that there are low expectations of Windows' impact on PC shipments is a relatively new phenomena: Historically, a new Windows OS has bumped up hardware sales -- sometimes a small increase, other times much larger -- as most customers prefer to buy a new device rather than upgrade an existing one.

That belief foundered in 2012 when Windows 8 debuted. Not only was the bifurcated OS panned, but it launched in the first year of the as-of-then-not-known contraction, coming off 2011, which was "peak PC," when manufacturers shipped a still-record 364 million machines. Meta-market conditions -- for one, the shift to mobile -- were more to blame for the lack of a "bounce" than was Windows 8.

"Not to overlook the experience of Windows 8, but this is a very mature technology, and so it's difficult to move the bar [with each new OS]," said Loverde.

IDC, Loverde added, has discounted new OS introductions for some time. "Our view is that upgrades have not juiced PC shipments for quite a while," he said. "It's much more of a progressive impact. Some OSes are well received, others are not."

Still, it's intriguing to put Microsoft's decision to give away Windows 10 upgrades in the context of the moment.

Knowing that PC shipments are in the doldrums -- worse than that, actually -- Microsoft could pull the trigger on the offer without risking a riot from OEMs. It's difficult, for instance, to imagine Microsoft going free in the climate it faced in 2009, the year it rolled out Windows 7, when PC shipments were preparing to jump by 14%.

"The environment is definitely different today," Loverde said.


Gregg Keizer

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