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PC market plods as smartphones, tablets take control

Shipments of personal computers are expected to grow less than 5 percent this year, according to the latest stats from Gartner. Will Windows 8 make a difference?

The PC market is likely to see another sluggish year but is poised for a rebound in 2013.

Global PC shipments will hit 368 million in 2012, Gartner forecast today, just a 4.4 percent gain from last year. Though not a huge bump, this year will at least show an improvement over 2011 when shipments totaled 352.8 million units, just a half a percentage point gain over 2010.

PC vendors have faced a difficult climate with a lethargic economy, supply constraints, and especially competition from smartphones and tablets.

"The use of applications such as e-mail, social networking, and Internet access, that were traditionally the domain of the PC, are now being used across media tablets and smartphones, making these devices in some cases more valued and attractive propositions," Gartner research director Ranjit Atwal said in a statement. "Consumers will now look at a task that they have to perform, and they will determine which device will allow them to perform such a task in the most effective, fun and, convenient way."

But the impact of ultrabooks and Windows 8 could turn 2013 into a kinder, gentler year for the industry. Gartner is forecasting that shipments will rise to 400 million next year, an 8.5 percent gain from 2012.

"PC shipments will remain weak in 2012, as the PC market plays catch up in bringing a new level of innovation that consumers want to see in devices they purchase," Atwal said. "The real question is whether Windows 8 and ultrabooks will create the compelling offering that gets the earlier adopter of devices excited about PCs again."

Mature markets will continue to replace existing PCs rather than buy new ones, leaving it up to emerging markets to rev up sales. Gartner sees emerging markets as the key to global PC growth both this year and beyond.

"Our expectation is that 2012 and then 2013 onwards will be supported by growth in emerging markets as their share increases from just over 50 percent in 2011 to nearly 70 percent in 2016," Atwal said. "Emerging markets have very low PC penetration and even with the availability of other devices we still expect a steady uptake of PCs."

Still, the industry will continue to face challenges from the heavy demand for mobile devices.

Competition from the new iPad, Android tablets, and Windows 8 tablets will rise up this year. And as more people turn to the cloud to store content, PC vendors will need to better distinguish their products from tablets, Atwal added.