Apple’s ascent to the PC throne appears to be coming at the expense of Microsoft and its allies.

While Apple has capitalized on the shift from traditional PCs to tablets, the Windows gang is seeing its traditional dominance slip away and has gained almost no traction in the tablet segment, according to a new report from market research firm Canalys. Dell is rapidly losing market share, Windows-based tablets have negligible market share and sales of devices running Windows RT, a new version of the operating system largely designed for touchscreen tablets, have been abysmal, Canalys’ report indicates.

“The outlook for Windows RT appears bleak,” Tim Coulling, a senior analyst at Canalys, said in a statement. “Hardware (manufacturers) are ignoring it.”

Worldwide, computer manufacturers shipped just 720,000 Windows RT-based computers and tablets in the fourth quarter, according to Canalys. That means that they accounted for about half of one percent of global PC market.

But even if you include other versions of Windows, Microsoft accounted for a miniscule share of the global tablet market. Of the 46.2 million tablets shipped in the fourth quarter, only 3 percent were running a Windows-flavored operating system.

That’s a huge blow to Microsoft, at least in the near-term. The company designed its new Windows 8 software specifically to make it more suitable for touchscreen devices, particularly tablets. And it created Windows RT to run on chips designed by ARM or using the ARM instruction set.

ARM chips are known for their power efficiency; they can run without a fan and allow manufacturers to create thinner, lighter-weight devices with longer battery life than they generally can with Intel-based chips. The chips are at the heart of the iPad, Amazon’s Kindle Fire and most Android tablets on the market. Making Windows compatible with ARM was supposed to allow Windows tablet makers to come out with devices that could more easily compete with the iPad and Android tablets.

But that’s not been the case. Part of the problem, according to Canalsys has simply been the price that Microsoft is charging for Windows RT. Android is available for free to manufacturers and Apple uses its own operating system in the iPad. Microsoft, by contrast, has built an empire around selling and licensing its operating systems.

But the company needs to radically change its strategy if it wants Windows RT to take off, Coulling said. Microsoft needs to do a better job of marketing the software and supporting manufacturers who use it, he said.

And it needs to slash the licensing cost — by some 60 percent, he said. That “should get (manufacturers) back onside,” he said.

But it’s not just in tablets where Microsoft and its partners are struggling. Laptop sales were flat in the fourth quarter. And Dell, long one of Microsoft’s closest allies, is really struggling.

Dell’s PC sales fell 19 percent in the fourth quarter from the same period a year earlier to 9.7 million PCs.  That gave it just 7 percent of the global market for tablets, laptops and desktops. Arch-rival Hewlett-Packard, by contrast, shipped 15 million PCs in the quarter. giving it 11% of the market . But that was only good enough for second place, trailing far behind Apple, which shipped 27 million tablets and Macs in the period.

(Photo courtesy of Dell.)

Troy Wolverton Troy Wolverton (279 Posts)

Troy writes the Tech Files column as the Personal Technology Columnist at the San Jose Mercury News. He also covers the digital media, mobile and video game industries and writes occasionally about Apple, chips, social networking and other aspects of technology. Previously, Troy covered Apple and the consumer electronics industry. Prior to joining the Mercury News, Troy reported on technology, business and financial issues for TheStreet.com and CNET News.com.