According to the conventional wisdom, Apple is selling more and more Macs every quarter, but remains far behind on the global market, with just a slim single digit market share. The real issue, however, is whether the well-known surveys are seriously understating Apple's success.
You see, in addition to selling 3.47 million Macs this past quarter, Apple also moved 3.27 iPads. So how do you define an iPad anyway?
To some, the iPad is just a swollen iPod touch, a handheld personal information gadget that's best used for book reading and Web surfing. On the other hand, just where is the line of demarcation between a tablet, typified by the iPad, and a personal computer, such as a Mac?
You can use both to browse the Internet and handle your email. The presence of Apple's Keynote and Pages means that you can also create content on an iPad, and I haven't begun to cover the thousands of other content creation apps available from third parties. That's still a burgeoning market, although the Mac is still way ahead.
On the other hand, today's iPad is far more functional than many older Macs, and probably a whole lot faster to boot. The 9.7 screen is larger than any of the original compact Macs and earlier PowerBooks.
So why not call it a personal computer and be done with it?
Of course, such a conclusion entails the recognition that a device using an operating system originally installed on tiny smartphones and similar gadgets is also sufficiently powerful and functional to run a "real" computer. That assumes, of course, that a smartphone or an iPod touch, for that matter, isn't a PC, although they share many features.
At least three posts I read online, from Tony Smith of The Register, Michelle Maisto at eWeek, and Jonny Evans at Computerworld, suggest that the sales of Macs and iPads ought to be combined, and if you do that, suddenly Apple is selling close to seven million PCs, sufficient to place the company among the top five PC makers worldwide, with a market share of over eight percent. According to these reports, one market research firm, Canalys, has evidently begun to take that approach, and you wonder when or if such companies as Gartner and maybe even NPD might use the same statistical model.
Sure, it's quite possible Apple's rivals will claim that sales of their tablet-based products ought to be considered in the same light. But I expect they already are, since pretty much all of the existing iPad rivals are just gussied up notebooks with special screens running the very same version of Windows used on regular portables.
Or maybe not, if they can't devise a credible iPad killer, and that's still an open question. The latest would-be contenders are expected to use Google's Android OS, Google's forthcoming Chrome OS, or in the case of HP, the WebOS they acquired when they purchased Palm.
As far as I'm concerned, I've no problem whatever with combining the iPad and the Mac when it comes to overall sales. Yes, they are two set of answers to the same questions, but they overlap sufficiently that lots of customers can comfortably use one or the other and pretty much accomplish similar tasks.
On the long haul, I expect the continued growth of the iPad may well mean that it will become the PC of choice for many buyers. Right now, there's little evidence of cannibalization from Macs, though. The combined iPad/iPhone/iPod halo effect simply attracts more people to Apple's products. All three comfortably mate with a Mac or PC courtesy of iTunes.
But once a customer is exposed to Apple's technology — even the vast majority of iPhone 4 users despite the alleged impact of that antenna issue — they are more apt to consider a Mac when it comes time to buy a new PC.
On the long haul, it means Mac sales will continue to climb ahead of the PC market. But it's also true that future iterations of the iPad will become more and more credible as PC replacements. Today that means fewer netbook sales, but in the future it may also mean that the traditional PC, even a Mac, will be an afterthought except for people who are accustomed to the mouse and keyboard configuration or engage in heavy-duty content creation.
You will, as Steve Jobs suggests, still need the truck for heavy lifting or powerful productivity apps, but the sleek family car will comfortably serve the needs of the rest of us.
In the end, I think Canalys has the right idea. Total iPad and Mac sales should be combined and, particularly in the U.S., that approach would place Apple's market share far closer to its major rivals.
Of course, that may also be one reason why industry analysts will keep them separate as long as they can. It's not as if Apple's rivals want to see them credited with a heavier share of the PC pie.
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