iPad Overtakes HP: Less Than Meets the Eye

By | Feb 1, 2012

HP's leading position in the PC client market has been overtaken by Apple, due mainly to sales of the popular iPad. Expect a spate of stories about the "Death of the PC," and how the future belongs to mobile devices, especially Apple products. But from an IT perspective, the future may not be so simple.

By some metrics, the trend is clear: A lot of people are buying iPads. But there are some structural reasons to suspect that the sales numbers don't tell the whole story, particularly regarding IT and the needs of small and midsize businesses (SMBs). But first a look at the current numbers, before we look behind them.

iPad Takes the Lead

As reported by Brooke Crothers at CNET, Apple has surged into the lead in the global PC client market. It claimed about 17 percent of the 120-million-unit client market, compared to 12.7 percent for HP client PCs. Other vendors trailed behind, with only Lenovo gaining modest market share. Apple's lead was fueled by 15 million iPads and 5 million Mac computers.

According to Steve Brazier of Canalys, another striking trend is the rise of Amazon as a PC vendor. The company may have shipped up to five million Kindle Fire tablet devices in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile apart from tablets, PC client sales were off 0.4 percent.

But closer examination of these numbers suggests a somewhat more complicated picture. As Brazier notes, HP has taken a hit from lagging sales of netbooks, a once-hot but now low-end category. Meanwhile, so-called ultrabooks are expected to gain some ground during 2012.

A Segmenting Marketplace

What stands out in the above numbers and comments is that the trends and shifts are centered on the consumer end of the marketplace, not the business and professional end. It has not been all that long since there was little difference between the two. High-end machines might have more speed and power, but the office computer and the home computer were essentially similar PCs, mostly running Windows.

The smartphone revolution provided many consumers with a cheaper and more convenient alternative to low-end PCs. Tablets are building on that trend--with the iPad representing a luxury-brand version of basic capabilities. And precisely because the iPad is a luxury brand, it draws outsized attention. People would rather write and read about a Lexus than a delivery truck.

But IT's job is to deliver and otherwise handle large mounts of data on an industrial (and ever-growing) scale. So, it will continue to rely on the cyber equivalent of delivery trucks, not "basic transportation" or even sports cars. Whatever happens to individual vendors such as HP or even Apple, the PC client computer will be central to IT for the foreseeable future.