Since mobile devices started phasing out PCs nearly half a decade ago, the giant Computex Taipei computer show has struggled for attention-grabbing themes. It’s not supposed to be a mobile device exhibition even though the market is moving that way. But now PCs are oozing back into style after sharp sales declines because Microsoft has cut support for its Windows XP, prompting consumers especially in business to buy hardware that runs on a newer operating system.
When Computex Taipei 2014 opens in the first week of June, computer developers can again shine a light on their latest notebooks or desktops instead of pretending that they’ve pushed PCs aside to fight tiny shares of the world tablet and smartphone markets. Taiwanese players such as Acer, Asustek, MSI and Quanta Computer will have nothing to hide. Ditto for Hewlett-Packard, Toshiba and Dell, which has said all along it expects PC shipments to stay steady.
Still, PCs will crawl, not bounce, back into fashion. Some users have already switched from the 13-year-old XP to Windows 7 or 8. Others will cling to older models to keep using software that only XP supports. Common household users may just go with tablets. “Not every PC will be replaced,” says Tracy Tsai, research director with market research firm Gartner in Taipei. Switches to modern Windows systems “would happen gradually, not all of a sudden,” she says, and for PC vendors “it’s helpful, but not a huge thing.”
But corporate buyers who need to fill cubicle after cubicle with late-model PCs are waiting till prices to drop, possibly leading a buying spree in the third quarter. “The enterprises are waiting for a time when the costs are right for an upgrade,” says Eric Chiou, an analyst with hardware research firm WitsView in Taipei. Acer, Asustek and Hewlett-Packard will lead the field with notebooks or desktops as cheap as $249, Chiou says, with Dell and Lenovo coming later.
Global PC shipments will change little this year from last, Gartner forecasts. Shipments fell just 1.7% to 76.6 million units in the first quarter of 2014 compared to the same span in 2013, its data shows. The sector posted a 6.9% decline between the fourth quarters of 2012 and 2013. Fellow market research firm IDC is calling for a 6.1% fall in PC sales this year, better than its finding of a 9.8% decline last year.
Tablet sales are also slowing, per IDC’s forecast for 19.4% shipment growth this year versus 51.6% in 2013. But they’re not going away, so developers such as Asustek and Hewlett-Packard are using hybrid tablet-notebook models as a hedge. Because of their novelty and potentially broad appeal, those two-in-one tools will stand out among the PCs shown at Computex next month as about 1,700 designers, manufacturers and suppliers meet 40,000 would-be buyers to compose the world’s second biggest computer expo after CeBIT in Germany.
The two-in-one devices are usually 11.6-inch, lightweight combos that let their masters type at home on a keyboard and take the monitor out of a dock for use as a tablet in cafés, offices or school libraries. Prices are easing to $350 per unit as developers add features, though some software such as Microsoft Office’s PowerPoint might work better on a standard PC. “These are for normal consumers,” Chiou says. “It’s about the weight and convenience.”