Atom Sales Drop, Netbook Share Increases: What’s Going on?

It seems like we’re getting even more signs that netbooks haven’t been doing very well lately. Research figures by IDC on the processor market seem to paint a not-so-rosy picture of sales of Intel’s Atom processor, and then figures coming in from DisplaySearch seem to paint a different picture. What’s going on here?

IDC’s figures for the first quarter of this year show a decline in the sales of processors, but that’s normal for this time of the year. The decline was slightly sharper than normal, but not as bad as it could’ve been. The decline in sales, fanned by the financial troubles in the world, did have a positive effect for AMD: its market share increased by 4.5% at Intel’s expense.

The IDC numbers for Intel’s Atom processer are in line with that of Intel itself during its most recent earnings call: the numbers are bad. IDC saw a 33% decline, Intel 27%. Does this mean sales of netbooks are dropping catastrophically as well? Ars’ Jon Stokes, whose opinion I value a great deal, says he doesn’t know what to think of this.

I’m not quite sure what to say about these Atom numbers, since they certainly don’t fit the “netbooks are the only hot thing in this down market” script very well. They also doesn’t fit with IDC’s previously released numbers that show netbooks sales increasing in the first quarter. It’s likely that there was some sort of inventory-clearing dynamic going on here, where retailers sold down their inventory without replenishing it to the same levels as previously. This makes sense, as I’ve read in numerous places that retailers across all industries currently would rather not tie up capital in inventory, preferring instead to remain liquid as long as possible. This means that orders from suppliers come in smaller, higher-frequency bursts that more closely match actual demand.

Jon is generally a guy to listen to when it comes to the processor business, and it might turn out he is right – if the figures released by DisplaySearch are anything to go by. According to those figures, netbook market penetration increased during the first quarter of 2009, to where netbooks now measure 20% of the total notebook market.

If we look at sales of notebooks year-over-year, netbooks have played a vital role in this market segment. If netbooks are taken out of the equation, notebook sales would have dropped 19% year-over-year – however, thanks to netbooks, they dropped only 3%.

It seems like the recent doubts about the sustainability of the netbook market may have been a bit premature. Still, this market is very young, and making any conclusive statements about its future-proofness are premature as well.


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