In another sign that companies have finally begun to boost their technology spending, worldwide PC shipments saw better-than-expected growth in the first quarter, with total shipments up 16.5%, according to research house IDC. Analysts had been gearing for growth of 13.5%.

Gartner, another research firm, reported a slightly lower shipment growth of 13.4%.

But both firms said, Thursday evening, the results underscored a loosening of corporate wallets worldwide, a much-awaited sign of hope for tech companies, which over the past two years have been reliant on consumers for growth.

"This quarter's results ratify the economic recovery," said Roger Kay, vice president of client computing at IDC. "We have nearly a year of double-digit growth in the PC industry, which is a concurrent indicator of economic activity. With U.S. business finally beginning to participate in the PC market in earnest, the only weak segments remain state and local public-sector institutions, which are suffering from constrained budgets due to lower recession-era tax receipts."

Charles Smulders, vice president of Gartner's computing platforms worldwide group, said: "The business segment was supported by increased PC replacement activity, as business confidence improved in most regions. Our forecast model shows strong PC replacement demand throughout 2004."

In a market in which PC share gains and losses are jealously counted out by the tenths of a percentage point, Dell ( DELL) cemented its lead, claiming 18.6% of total PC shipments in the first quarter, up from 16.9% in the forth quarter.

Meanwhile, second-ranked Hewlett-Packard's ( HPQ) share of the market declined to 15.6% from 16.7%.

The share shift didn't come as a total surprise, though. Many PC market-watchers had flagged an inventory buildup in H-P's notebooks.

Gartner analysts said that H-P had brought inventory back to more normal levels by the close of the calendar first quarter.