If you've been holding your breath, waiting for Hewlett-Packard ( HPQ) and Dell ( DELL) to soothe your fears about the PC industry, more than your face will be blue this week. To open the year, H-P and Dell gave investors something to cheer in their quarterly reports that lagged the rest of the market by a month. Both told of sales that held up long after the Christmas rush all the way into the beginning of February, delivering the first glimpse of what was to become a better-than-seasonal first quarter for the Compaqs and Intels ( INTC) of the world. When H-P reports its results Tuesday and Dell highlights its earnings Thursday, PC industry followers will get no such boost from a look at business through the month of April. Not that results will be bad. Dell has been aggressively using its charms, from free shipping to cheap memory, to attract its bargain-seeking customers. The computer maker is expected to add market share among its weaker segments, consumers and among big company clients. Additionally, investors will see Dell benefit from the trend we've been seeing for months: With little improvement in tech spending, big customers are buying only as-needed items, at the cheapest prices they can get. That benefits Dell because it sells lower-end servers and often the cheapest business PCs. "Companies are still going to the Band Aid-type spending to get them through the year," says PC analyst Brett Miller from A.G. Edwards. "Budgets are budgets, and people don't have allocations for large products in their budgets." Of course, H-P has some low-end PCs and printers to its credit, but expect to see pressure on those big-ticket printing and server items. We've heard it from chipmakers to networkers, computer companies to software makers -- corporations aren't opening their wallets in 2002, as far as they can see. Hewlett-Packard probably won't say anything different -- plus, it isn't expected to offer projections on the newly combined company. And despite a small upgrade in guidance from Dell on April 3 that raised revenue expectations from a 3% to 5% sequential dip to a 2% slide to $7.9 billion, tech leaders have not softened their stance on a spending recovery. Neither minor economic progress nor pent-up demand has spurred any improvement so far in 2002.
Which doesn't mean that PC sales are totally abysmal. Demand is inching up to provide better year-over-year comparisons from 2001. Yet the results are still depressing: March retail PC sales climbed enough to amount to only an 8% year-over-year decline, compared with a 17% year-over-year fall in February and a 22% drop from January 2001 to January 2002. Keep in mind that as the months go by, those comparisons should become easier as they match up with the punishing mid-2001 time frame. PC onlookers are expecting gradual slow growth. There's little hope anymore that the second half of 2002 will turn on a spigot of PC demand. "Dell would be in final price negotiations for any large deployments in the second half of the year," says Miller. "None of that is going on. Dell's real strength is in the desktop." Instead, investors will have to satisfy themselves with the promises of a return to normal seasonality. On that note, by the third quarter, college parents will be coughing up the cash for back-to-school computers, and PC makers will be tuning up for holiday demand. Second-quarter results are typically down slightly from those of the first quarter, followed by sales growth in the third and again in the fourth quarters. That's all PC investors will have to look forward to for the rest of the year; it's highly unlikely that H-P and Dell will report anything different. Once again, the revival investors have been trying to will into existence refuses to cooperate.