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Analysts reported this month that the global PC market did something in 2019 it had not accomplished in seven years: It grew.
The figures differ as to how much -- IDC reported a 2.7% year-over-year growth in global shipments, while Gartner cited a 0.6% increase -- but experts agree that the Windows 7 sunset helped to prompt a hardware refresh for the enterprise. Per Gartner, Lenovo, HP and Dell shipped the most PCs in 2019, seeing growth of 8%, 3% and 5%, respectively.
Whether the boost in growth will be a one-year blip is debatable, but there is consensus that, for the enterprise at least, the PC is here to stay.
Windows 7 sunset gives PCs a boost
Linn Huang, research vice president at IDC, attributed the increase to a confluence of factors. Companies found themselves in a unique position of having to migrate to a new OS amid the growing tensions of a trade war with China, where PC components are commonly manufactured.
"For starters, the January 2020 [end of support] of Windows 7 means businesses -- large and small alike -- [were] either completing or accelerating their Windows 10 migrations," he said.
Huang also mentioned shortages and tariff issues may have affected the market as well. Intel faced CPU supply issues that eased during the course of 2019 and, in December, President Trump tweeted that "penalty tariffs" would "not be charged," thanks to a new agreement with China.
Mikako Kitagawa, senior principal analyst at Gartner, said the shipment boost was not because of any renewed interest in using the PC, but almost solely because of the Windows 7 sunset, which occurred Jan. 14.
Forrester Research analyst Andrew Hewitt acknowledged the effect of the Windows 7 sunset, but said it was only part of the story.
"I also believe that the PC is becoming more important as organizations try to improve employee experience," he said. "We know from research that if people can't make progress every day at work, they're vulnerable to burnout and can contribute to higher attrition. The PC sits at the heart of productivity, so organizations see it as an important driver of [employee experience]."
Yev Pusin, director of strategy at data storage firm Backblaze, said the business' clients -- especially on the enterprise side -- indeed had a need for something that could contribute more to productivity than a smartphone or tablet.
"I think a lot more folks ... realized that, for the multi-tasking and flexibility they want, they need an actual computer -- a Mac or PC," he said.
Will PC market growth continue?
Kitagawa expects to see shipments dip in 2020 and 2021 due to a weak consumer market, as the smartphone has largely subsumed the PC's role in daily life. Smartphones have made inroads in the enterprise as well, especially among younger workers.
"People used to carry a laptop or tablet to do work. Now, smartphone screens are bigger, so they are able to handle some tasks as well," she said. "On the mentality side, many young people feel their smartphone is their primary work device."
This is not to say that the PC will be disappearing from the workspace anytime soon.
"It's not the case that the PC is going away," Kitagawa said. "The PC is a very important business tool."
Huang likewise expected a decline of PC sales in the next couple of years but said a shift in the market might accompany that trend.
"Consumers and commercial users alike are demanding better and better with each generation," he said. "Consequently, we expect to ship fewer PCs [in] 2020 and beyond, but the market will continue to churn toward more premium ends."
Pusin said he did see a continued appetite for PCs in the future but agreed that customers interested in buying computers might focus on the higher end of performance.
According to Hewitt, the PC will retain its central place in the business world, although the form factor may differ.
"Our research actually shows that 30% of the most important factors for improving employee experience are technology-related, and the PC is a big part of that," he said.