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Skeptics don't get that new-time Windows 8.1 religion

Little chance the upgrade will reverse sales contraction this year, argue analysts; IDC says shipments 'deteriorating' more than expected

July 8, 2013 11:35 AM ET

Computerworld - Analysts remain skeptical that Microsoft's relaunch of Windows 8 and the free upgrade to Windows 8.1 will translate into increased PC and tablet sales in the second half of the year.

"[Windows 8.1] is unlikely to have a major impact [on] purchasing decisions made by mainstream consumers," said Sameer Singh, an analyst who writes on the Tech-Thoughts blog, after Microsoft revealed a public preview of the free upgrade June 26 at the company's BUILD developers conference.

Two weeks ago, Microsoft released a beta of Windows 8.1, with CEO Steve Ballmer calling the fall upgrade "a refined blend of our desktop experience and our Modern user experience."

Windows 8.1 is essentially a relaunch of Windows 8, the radical operating system that debuted last October. Along with several long-demanded changes -- a restoration of a Start button-like feature and the ability to bypass the tile-based Start screen when booting -- Microsoft also opened the OS door to smaller 8-in. tablets.

For Singh, Windows 8.1's PC changes are either cosmetic or unlikely to be used because they are disabled by default. Nor is he optimistic that the upgrade would significantly spur tablet sales.

"Windows 8.1 should have no impact on the attractiveness of tablets based on the platform," wrote Singh. "While it does offer some improvements, tablet purchases are based on two primary factors: application availability and price."

In neither instance does Windows 8.1 change the dynamics, Singh argued, since smaller Windows tablets will be priced substantially higher than Android-based devices, and the Windows Store, Microsoft's app e-market, continues to lag behind stores backed by rivals Apple and Google.

"This makes is even more difficult to justify premiums for Windows 8 tablets and is unlikely to result in market share gains," Singh concluded.

Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, is also dubious that Windows 8.1 would fuel a 2103 turn-around in Microsoft's OS fortunes.

"My takeaway was that Windows 8.1 is a step forward, but will do little to boost holiday 2013 sales," said Moorhead in a July 2 post to the Techpinions blog. The bottleneck? Most existing hardware remains too heavy, too slow, sports too-short battery life and lacks touch. In other words, the hardware is Windows 8-unfriendly.

"Let me give [Windows] 8.1 credit where it is due -- [it's] simpler and more robust than [Windows] 8. [But] for the other consumer issues outlined above, 8.1 doesn't improve a whole lot of anything," said Moorhead.

Instead, Moorhead is banking on the hardware makers, dubbed OEMs for "original equipment manufacturers," to come up with new designs based on new AMD, Intel, Nvidia and Qualcomm processors. "Think of the irony for a second; hardware helping save software," Moorhead said. "Sad, but true."

Meanwhile, research firm IDC, which earlier this year predicted PC shipments would contract by 7.8%, nearly four times the decline in 2012, said that the market is already behind that projection.

In a note published June 28, IDC said that 2013's fall-off might be even larger than forecast. "The expectation for the second quarter was not all that high, showing only minor improvement from the first quarter," said Loren Loverde, the analyst who leads IDC's PC shipment tracking group. "But the May results reflect deteriorating conditions rather than improvement and the market will probably fall short of projections."

In the model IDC used to forecast the 7.8% decline, the second quarter -- which ended June 30 -- was to be down 11.7%, a smaller drop than the first quarter's historic 13.9% plunge. Shipments in the third and fourth quarters, meanwhile, would decline 4.7% and 1.6%, respectively, from the same periods in 2012.

"We still expect an improvement in the second half of the year as more new products are launched and we get into the back-to-school and holiday seasons," Loverde said. "But the market will likely remain cautious about the second half of 2013."

This article, Skeptics don't get that new-time Windows 8.1 religion, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at Twitter @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed Keizer RSS. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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