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Everybody knows that the growth of personal-computer sales is slowing over the long term. And most investors are pretty much OK with that, judging by the relative strength of the PC sector this year.

But investors harried by the recent volatility in tech are in no mood to entertain the possibility of any near-term glitches -- especially not with

Gateway

(GTW)

and

Sun Microsystems

(SUNW) - Get Sunworks, Inc. Report

ready to kick off first-quarter earnings season among the computer boxmakers Thursday night.

Witness the frenzy that

Goldman Sachs

analyst Rick Sherlund created Wednesday when he lowered his fiscal third-quarter revenue estimate on

Microsoft

(MSFT) - Get Microsoft Corporation Report

. Citing unexpectedly sluggish PC demand between November and February, Sherlund's call knocked the stuffing out of a wide swath of computer boxmaker stocks: The

Philadelphia Stock Exchange Boxmaker Index

, or BMX, shed 2.5% amid heavy selling in components

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Dell

(DELL) - Get Dell Technologies Inc Class C Report

,

Hewlett-Packard

(HWP)

and

Apple

(AAPL) - Get Apple Inc. Report

, the last of which fell 8.5% despite an afternoon upgrade by

Bank of America Securities

.

All in Check

With all that happening against the backdrop of another 7.1% drop in the tottering

Nasdaq Composite Index

, those long PC stocks are doing their best to keep perspective.

"I'm not tremendously worried," says Philip Treick, portfolio manager at

Aesop Capital Partners

. "I mean, of course I'm worried, but I'm not panicking. I'm not selling my Dell, that's for sure."

Treick can take comfort in the fact that Wall Street hardly would be shocked by a first-quarter slowdown. The fourth quarter is by far the strongest period for PC makers. First-quarter sales growth typically slows as year-end demand tapers off.

Recent data suggest that history will repeat itself again this year. The quarterly forecast from research firm

Dataquest

pegs worldwide PC sales growth at 18% this quarter, down from 21% in the fourth quarter.

Old News Is Good News

"We've been talking about this for months," contends

Robertson Stephens

analyst Dan Niles. "None of this is new news. It's like I'm standing in the rain, and you're telling me it's raining. Or, in this case, you're telling me it rained yesterday."

Still, some analysts are worried that Sherlund may be onto something.

"It's a logical call," says Daniel Kunstler, analyst at

J.P. Morgan

, who notes that he hasn't made any downward revisions in the sector lately. "We've been hearing that those selling through the channel" -- that is, through distributors and dealers, rather than directly to consumers -- "are not having a fun time of it. It appears they're selling a little toward the low end. There's definitely some Y2K hangover as well."

Like most industry analysts, Kunstler isn't very optimistic about the future of the PC industry. With sales projected to slow steadily over the next five years, he believes that the only successful companies will be those that can reduce their exposure to the desktop market. "I like PC companies that don't want to be PC companies," Kunstler says.

Gateway isn't one of those stocks. "Gateway is the most vulnerable," says Ashok Kumar, analyst at

Piper Jaffray

, which has done no underwriting on the stock. "First, it's focused on the consumer market, which is in even worse shape. And second, it's a desktop-only play."

The Thursday Thud

Coming on the heels of Sherlund's note on Microsoft, a miss by Gateway on Thursday could reverberate through the sector, though today's selling has gone a long way toward pricing that possibility in.

"Most of

the boxmakers will miss the March-quarter revenue numbers," concedes Niles. "The question is, have we already hit bottom, and should we be buying this stuff now? I think it'll be like Dell," which is up 26% since it warned on its third quarter in late January.

"That was it," Niles points out. "That was the bottom."

A wonderful sort of bottom that would be. Even after today, the BMX is still up 38% since Oct. 15.