Newest forecast kicks Windows' rebound further down the road

Lousy PC sales, Microsoft's refusal to complete in small-tablet market contribute to another downgrade of Windows device estimates

Gartner this week downgraded its Windows device shipment forecast for the second time this year, saying that while Microsoft's platform is still expected to rebound in 2014, its climb out of an historic PC slump will happen at a slower pace.

For 2013, Windows' share of the operating systems on all "smart devices" -- smartphones, tablets, PCs and PC-tablet hybrids -- will drop 4.3% compared to the year before, double the 2% decline predicted four months ago by the research company.

The culprits: Smaller tablets and a longer- and larger-than-expected slump in traditional PCs.

"The decline [in the revised forecast] is from the pure-tablet side of things," Carolina Milanesi, an analyst with Gartner, said in an interview. "The lower end of the tablet [market] is driving that market, and Microsoft is really not playing there."

By "lower-end," Milanesi means lower-priced tablets, which are almost exclusively the smaller-sized devices with screens of 7 inches or 8 inches. Microsoft, which is in the tablet space with its own Surface line, has declined to compete in the petite form factor; for the most part, so have its OEM (original equipment manufacturer) partners. Dell, for example, only just announced the Venue 8 Pro, an 8-in. tablet powered by Windows 8.1 and an Intel Atom processor, part of the family code-named "Bay Trail." The Venue 8 Pro won't start selling until next month.

Earlier this year, Gartner expected that Microsoft and OEMs would compete in the smaller-size tablet market. That didn't happen, or not to the extent the researcher forecast.

But Windows will turn things around in 2014, growing its share 9.7% year-over-year to nearly 367 million devices. The numbers, however, were smaller than Gartner's previous estimate of an 11.4% gain to 378 million units, because of the lower 2013 number as well as the research firm's anticipation that the OS will remain a minor player in the hot 8-in. tablet segment.

Gartner's forecast Monday was more bearish than either of its last two, first in April and then again in June. According to Gartner's April estimate, the various editions of Windows were to climb 2.3% in 2013 and an additional 12.2% in 2014.

What happened?

First of all, data on two more quarters arrived, and showed that the traditional PC business -- laptops and desktops -- was continuing to contract. Gartner is now predicting that PC shipments will slide more than 11% for the year; even when the "ultramobile" category is included, a group that includes the radical tablet designs that can convert into a notebook with some kind of physical manipulation or an added keyboard, the decline will be around 8%.

Microsoft's fundamental problems haven't changed in the last four months, said Milanesi. The company overwhelmingly relies on the shrinking traditional PC market -- 85% of Windows device shipments are in that category -- and it has yet to show how it will gain ground in either smartphones or tablets.

Smart device shipment share 2012-2014
Microsoft's share of all computing devices -- personal computers, tablets and smartphones -- has stagnated even as Apple's and Google's are expected to climb once again in 2014. (Data: Gartner.)
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