It wasn't so many years ago that Apple's Mac market share was a mere blip compared to the Windows PC. Some suggested it was mostly noise, and very little signal, but that's also when the tech pundit of the week suggested Apple was dying any day now.
For the past 19 quarters, Apple's sales growth has exceeded that of most of the PC industry. Yes, some of the companies who made netbooks grew pretty fast too for a while, but with buyer's remorse setting in, along with the arrival of the iPad, the netbook became a product whose days in the sun are probably over. That is, except for folks who cannot afford something better.
Now comes the news that the iPad may have finally put Apple over the top in sales. According to a survey of PC notebook sales for the fourth quarter of 2010, from DisplaySearch, the MacBook, MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, combined with the iPod, had a 17.2% share of the global market. Total unit sales were roughly 10.2 million, compared to 9.3 million for second-place HP. Dell, which seems to be doing better of late, was at number four with 5.9 million.
This survey doesn't include desktop PCs, but it's fair to say Apple wouldn't have done as well, because there's no iPad equivalent on the desktop side of the fence. More to the point, though, is the fact that this is the sort of survey that many industry analysts wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole, simply because the iPad is included in the stats. They'd rather pretend that the iPad is not a personal computer, and thus should be placed into some other ephemeral category of their choosing. In fact, I gather tablets are subdivided in such a way that the Amazon Kindle, which sort of fits into that category, also gets its own special ranking.
Anything, I suppose, to keep Apple from gaining bragging rights, even though the company's market value has long since surpassed that of Microsoft, and the same is true for total revenue. Yes, Microsoft still has somewhat higher profits, but most of that comes from software, where actual production costs are quite low, beyond the initial development and ongoing upgrade process.
The real issue, of course, is whether it's right to call an iPad a personal computer. Just what is a personal computer anyway?
Well, you can certainly run productivity apps on an iPad, and play games, music and videos. Yes, it has Internet access, not to mention email. You can print, after a fashion, to a handful of HP devices, and, if you get a third party hack, to other printers connected to a Mac or PC. In passing, I expect this AirPrint feature will be officially expanded in the not-too-distant future.
Sure, it's not a Mac, and not a PC, but a personal computer shouldn't be restricted to only two operating systems. It's the functionality and not the OS that counts.
You can, of course, create a long list of the PC functions that the iPad doesn't support — at least not yet! But that's not any reason to put it in another category. What about those tablets that run Windows 7? Wouldn't Microsoft want them to be included as part of the total PC sales figures, even if they don't sell many of them?
At the risk of quoting Steve Jobs again, you have to regard the iPad as the PC of the future. There are certainly things it can't do, and the fact that it has to be docked with a Mac or PC for data syncing and OS updates is purely temporary, as far as I'm concerned. Some expect that Apple's huge data center in North Carolina will help free the iPad of dependence on the traditional PC. Remember, you can recharge the thing from a regular wall socket; it doesn't have to be attached to your regular computer to replenish the battery.
Over time, I continue to believe the iPad will replace the functions of most PCs some day. This doesn't mean that the original PC form factor is obsolete. There's plenty of life left in a Mac or a PC, and I expect that many of you will still need them to run legacy apps, and engage in heavy-duty content creation, such as writing long pieces, video editing, and all the other functions for which a tablet is not yet suitable.
It's also likely that this transition is happening faster than Apple's competitors wanted or expected. Total iPad sales have already exceeded those of Macs. There seems to be little chance that the current crop of iPad wannabes have any chance of gaining significant market share. As one columnist suggested recently, those new tablets have unsubsidized prices that are way out of whack compared to an iPad. The only way to reduce the price to a sensible level is to tie yourself to a long-term data contract, whether you need one or not. Besides, the iPad is an icon. That's something none of the current crop of pretenders can hope to achieve.
The real question is this: When will the rest of those industry surveyors recognize reality and give the iPad a fair shake in their stats? Or maybe some must appeal to certain vested interests that just don't want to see Apple become number one in yet another product category.
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