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Not About the Beatles

I admit to being a fan of the legendary “Fab Four,” but their arrival on iTunes this week failed to elicit more than yawn on my part. It’s not as if the music, even in digitally remastered form, hasn’t been available from physical media outlets for quite some time. You could always rip your CDs in iTunes for your Apple mobile gear, so where’s the benefit?

The Beatles promotion, which will include lots of TV ads, will surely keep Apple’s download servers busy for a while, but the real issues facing Apple lie elsewhere. With the holiday lineup present and accounted for, estimates of Mac sales for the current quarter are in the low to middle of the four million range — record territory again — with the MacBook Air contributing an unknown amount to these figures.

With wide expansion of the iPad, even via Verizon Wireless, estimates of total sales appear to be off the charts now that production has evidently caught up with demand, more or less. So-called iPad killers appear to be having uncertain success. HP is reporting that they sold some 9,000 Slate 500 tablets, which is supposed to be beyond their expectations, but is embarrassing for such a large corporation. How well the Samsung Galaxy Tab will fare is anyone’s guess. I suppose part of it depends on whether Steve Jobs is right that a 7-inch tablet, such as Samsung’s, is the wrong form factor. Besides, unless you want to be saddled with a data contract from a wireless provider, you won’t save any money if you buy one.

If there’s a downside to the iPad’s potential, it may be the expectations of a better model, complete with one or two cameras, some time next year. But people who keep waiting for model upgrades often never buy anything. There’s always something better on the horizon.

I expect that the iPod will score reasonably well, but sales will continue to stutter, unless, of course, you are willing to count the iPhone as a souped up iPod, in which case they continue to soar. What’s more, with over 14 million iPhones shipped last quarter, and distribution expanding, you might expect another blow-out quarter, although Android OS-equipped gear will still do better, since there are more models and more carriers.

Once the Verizon Wireless version of the iPhone appears — and that appears a near-certainty for early in 2011 — the Android onslaught may not seem so compelling, even to rabid Apple critics. This isn’t to say that Google’s open source mobile OS will suddenly falter. There are millions of customers who are looking for the bigger, better deal, and they don’t care about the fineries of the iOS compared to Android, RIM or anything else.

The potential for Windows Phone 7 is still unsettled. It appears the first devices equipped with Microsoft’s new mobile OS sold well in some places, not so well in others. I do see that Microsoft has already made some overtures towards product placement on TV shows. Just the other night, the distinctive tiles on a Windows Phone 7 smartphone were clearly depicted in a closeup during a crucial scene on ABC’s lighthearted mystery drama, “Castle.”

On the long haul, however, Microsoft has barely kept up with last year’s smartphones in terms of OS capabilities, and there’s loads of competition out there. It’s not the PC versus Mac wars revisited, where Microsoft is forever destined to be dominant. That train left the station long, long ago.

By dint of its slow march to the top of the tech universe, Apple is now the company to beat, but the situation is different. Sure, Apple remains number one in the music business, and the iPad controls 95% of the tiny tablet computer market. But there’s little certainty that margin will hold once loads of imitations are available.

With smartphones, Apple only needs to carve out a decent double-digit share to make loads of money, even if other players move more product to carriers and customers. Apple’s won’t build hardware from which they can’t earn a sizable profit. That posture continues to confound the skeptics, who continue to insist there ought to be cheap Macs, and a smaller iPhone and iPad, to satisfy people who can’t afford the full-blown versions.

Apple still makes loads of cash from the sale of Macs, and nobody’s suggesting the Mac OS will supplant Windows in our lifetimes. What will likely happen is that other products, perhaps the iPad or a successor, will take over the volume portion of the PC market. The existing form factors will continue to be sold to professional content creators, but even company employees who used to receive note-books for travel are now being offered iPads in many cases.

At the same time, the existing PC configuration model continues to change. Apple is busy throwing traditional storage devices to the winds. Floppy drives died in the last decade, optical drives will disappear soon, and the old fashioned mechanical hard drive, using technology refined from inventions of several decades ago, is an endangered species. Solid state drives with large storage capacities are destined to become affordable before long.

The personal computer of the future will be totally wireless, not tethered to traditional Ethernet networks, and forget about using external storage. But between the MacBook Air and the iPad, we’ve already seen Apple’s future direction, and that’s precisely where they’re going.