We’ve heard, recently, about shocking reverses of fortune in the consumer electronics sector — massive layoffs and restructuring by previously unassailable industry giants such as Sony and cell phone giants such as Motorola.

But, now, the bad news is spreading to the computer industry, where economic think tank Gartner Group is predicting a huge decline in sales this year.

A recent Gartner report says worldwide personal computer sales can be expected to drop by 12 per cent this year, over last. It’s even more shocking compared to the annual increases in overall portable and desktop PC sales of at least ten per cent registered over each of the last three years.

“The PC industry is facing extraordinary conditions as the global economy continues to weaken, users stretch PC lifetimes and PC suppliers grow increasingly cautious,” Gartner Research Director George Shiffler said, in a statement.

On the bright side, the portable PC sector is expected to show modest gains — about nine per cent overall — perpetuating a trend away from desktops toward portables of all descriptions that began a couple of years ago.

One niche market which is expected to show phenomenal growth is so-called netbooks — mini mobile portables selling for under (US)$400. Sales of these stripped-down minis are expected to grow by as much as 80 per cent worldwide this year, largely because their affordable price will make them a viable alternative to pricier, full-featured notebooks.

Alas for the PC industry, netbooks are expected to make up a mere 8 per cent of overall worldwide personal computer sales this year.

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