At the start of 2014, even the PC market's most staunch defenders might well have assumed it was in terminal decline. Of course, it has been through the odd blip before, the occasional quarter of setbacks. But, as this year began, sales and shipments had been going south for more or less two years solid.
The dicey economic climate had played its part, particularly in Europe, where some countries have teetered dangerously on the precipice between recession and depression. The rise of the tablet has also taken its toll, eating into sales of longer-standing form factors.
But if last year (and the one before) was the PC market's annus horribilis, then 2014 has been truly mirabilis - at least when set in the context of the freefall the market had been in previously. Let's examine just how good it has been.
The PC market in EMEA began the year in solid, if not spectacular form. In its first-quarter figures, IDC claimed the market had "stabilised" during 2014's opening three months. Total shipments across the region did fall 1.1 per cent year on year to 21.8 million, but this represented a marked improvement on the double-digit drops of the preceding 24 months.
It was a market of two halves in Q1, with a big rebound in western Europe offset by declines across the rest of the region. This was the seventh consecutive quarter of reverses for the EMEA market, but there were signs of positive things to come in the shape of an 8.6 per cent increase in shipments in western Europe.
The growth was largely driven by the first flushes of the Windows XP effect, which fuelled a 15.1 per cent increase in the B2B sector in western Europe, and an EMEA-wide 1.4 per cent rise in the desktop space, which had previously looked dead and buried. The end-of-life process for the 13-year-old operating system has been a key factor in the PC market's renaissance this year.
However, it was not all good news for the EMEA market in Q1 as the central and eastern Europe section "remained partially impacted by high inventory and currency fluctuations" and posted a 16.7 per cent year-on-year shipment drop. The Middle East and Africa endured an 8.4 per cent decline.
Lenovo - which, before 2014 was out, would be crowned the world's largest PC manufacturer - began the year strongly in EMEA, increasing shipments by a third to narrow first-placed HP's lead at the top.
Total shipments - 21.8 million - down 1.1 per cent YoY
Desktops - up 1.4 per cent
Notebooks - down 2.6 per cent
Having found its footing somewhat during Q1, 2014's second quarter was when the PC market truly returned to form in EMEA. After seven consecutive quarters of, invariably hefty declines, PC shipments in Q2 rocketed 10.5 per cent year on year to 21.9 million, according to more IDC numbers.
Once again, the commercial sector in the region's mature markets was the key growth driver, with the total number of units shipped in western Europe spiking by a quarter. The Middle East and Africa also returned to growth, albeit with a far more modest expansion of 1.9 per cent. However, the central and eastern Europe region - which was becoming increasingly impacted by geopolitical factors - endured another big drop in shipment volumes, with the market contracting 13.2 per cent.
Despite the positive figures, IDC was quick to stress that the numbers pointed to "a rebound in the market, but not a recovery", as total shipments were still some way below the 25-million peak of a couple of years previously.
In the vendor league table, leader HP (21.7 per cent market share) and challenger-in-chief Lenovo (18 per cent) began to stretch away from their rivals, with Acer an increasingly distant third on 11.6 per cent, despite a quarter of solid growth for the Taiwanese vendor.
Total shipments - 21.9 million - up 10.5 per cent YoY
Desktops - up 14.1 per cent
Notebooks - up 8.3 per cent
"The rebound is clear and consumers' renewed interest in portable PCs is encouraging," said, Chrystelle Labesque, IDC's research manager for EMEA personal computing in a press release to accompany the analyst's Q3 figures.
The year's third quarter was almost a carbon copy of the preceding three months, although this time a healthy bounce-back in the consumer segment was also a key contributor to market growth which saw total EMEA shipments grow 10.4 per cent annually to 23.7 million. IDC pointed to a number of factors - including a busy back-to-school season and the success of Windows with Bing machines - that helped notebook shipments rise 13.5 per cent year on year. The desktop space was this time the laggard, despite another quarter of robust expansion, with units shipped spiking 5.2 per cent.
Once again western Europe was the region's primary growth engine, with shipments rising 22.7 per cent. Growth continued to creep up in the Middle East and Africa, reaching 2.1 per cent, while the contraction of the market in central and eastern Europe ameliorated a little, with shipments falling nine per cent year on year in Q3.
But IDC again took pains to point out this was "still not a recovery", as overall volumes continued to lag those achieved in early 2012.
Lenovo was once again the fastest-growing among the leading pack of manufacturers, and narrowed HP's lead to less than three points, with 22.1 per cent playing 19.4 per cent. After a tough few years Acer, in third, had its most positive quarter in a long while, growing shipments by 37.3 per cent. Its market share of 12 per cent was 2.3 points higher than the corresponding period last year.
Total shipments - 23.7 million - up 10.4 per cent YoY
Desktops - up 5.2 per cent
Notebooks - up 13.5 per cent
The broad-strokes view of the PC market's return to form in 2014 is that sales have been given a massive shot in the arm by the end-of-life process for Windows XP. As such, many onlookers seem nervous that, as the number of XP machines still active in the field quickly dwindles, sales will soon be facing another downturn.
Either way, most of those in the market CRN has spoken to in recent months seem to expect that the XP factor will continue to give sales a decent helping hand throughout the first two, perhaps even three quarters of 2015. But even beyond that, channel executives and market watchers have pointed to other factors that have boosted sales this year.
After sweating their assets and delaying capital investments for as long as possible, it seems that many companies have released budget for IT upgrade projects this year. With the economies of Europe - at least all those to the west of Ukraine - generally showing more positive signs of late, the channel must hope that 2015 will see even more enterprise spending unlocked, as refresh cycles continue to pick up steam.
Q1 2014 - PC shipments up 8.6 per cent
Q2 2014 - PC shipments up 25 per cent
Q3 2014 - PC shipments up 22.7 per cent
But one technology that does not seem to be enjoying fast and frequent refreshes is the tablet. As PC sales have rebounded in 2014, so tablet shipments have begun to plateau, or even decline, after four years of continual stellar growth following the release of the first iPad in 2010. It is hard not to infer a correlation between the successes of the PC market and the struggles of the tablet space this year.
The received wisdom in the market is that consumers are just not replacing their tablets with anywhere near the same frequency that they would a laptop or a desktop. There have, to date, been six iterations of the iPad and three of its little sister, the iPad Mini. But many are seemingly finding no reason to upgrade on their first- or second-generation model.
The resurgence in the consumer PC market in 2014's second half certainly suggest that people's priority has been switching up their laptop or desktop instead. And with tablet ownership having become much more widespread, it seems unlikely that sales will ever again enjoy the enormous growth that has characterised the last few years.
While the XP boom and the reinvigorated refresh cycles on 2014 may not last forever, PC resellers can remain hopeful that the market will show greater resilience than it did for the dire two-year period beginning around the middle of 2012. One vendor's European leader we spoke to recently predicted that, once the XP effect begins to wear off in 2015's second half, the PC space will become more "placid".
After the massive peaks and troughs of the last three years, a little placidity will surely be welcomed by the industy.
This is the second of a two-part feature. Click here to read our recap of how the server market returned to form in 2014.
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