It isn't easy making a living in this country as a box seller, unless your name just happens to be Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL).

Gartner published its PC sales metrics for the fourth quarter last night. The industry tracker estimates that 17.9 million computers were shipped during the holiday period, a 5.9% decline from last year. The category includes traditional PCs, laptops, and mini notebooks, excluding the tablets and smartphones that are selling briskly these days.

If you want to make an ugly number even uglier, back out Apple. Take away the more than 300,000 computers it sold this past quarter relative to last year and this country's non-Apple PC shipments fell by a staggering 8.6%.

Sales have been sluggish outside of Apple for more than a year, but Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ) and Dell (NYSE: DELL) are really struggling right now.

Let's take a look at the market share changes over the past year.

2011 Q4 Market Share
2010 Q4 Market Share
Unit Growth
HP 23.1% 29.4% (26.1%)
Dell 22.4% 22.1% (4.5%)
Apple 11.6% 9.0% 20.7%
Toshiba 10.7% 10.3% (2.2%)
Acer 9.8% 10.4% (11.4%)

Source: Gartner.

Here are a couple of interesting nuggets from the data.

  • Dell and Toshiba may have gained market share, but it's a shrinking pie. Their total shipments actually declined.
  • Apple overtook laptop specialist Toshiba and Acer for the bronze this time.
  • Globally, the outlook is better, and Dell actually shipped out more PCs, but the global shipments still declined by a problematic 1.4%.

Gartner isn't optimistic about how things will play out in the near term. Floods in Thailand have resulted in a hard-disk-drive shortage that will limit the industry's shipments through at least the first half of this year.

This may all seem like gloomy news for Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) and accessory maker Logitech (Nasdaq: LOGI), but it's also quite possible that PC buyers have been holding back on Microsoft-powered machines until Windows 8 rolls out later this year. Once the new systems hit, Logitech will likely be back selling more third-party keyboards and optical mouse controllers, and Mr. Softy should be raking in its high-margin operating system revenue.

HP and Dell better hope that's the case. Apple keeps closing in with every passing quarter.

If you haven't read about the two words that are giving Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer fits, it's a free report, so you as may well check it out now.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.