Apple trumped by HP, Acer in laptop sales gains in Q4

Customers may have delayed buying ahead of MacWorld

Although Apple's climb in computer market share has been largely fuelled by its laptop lineup, other PC makers have done even better at boosting global laptop sales, according to a research firm.

Based on total units sold, HP led all laptop vendors, with a 20 per cent market share in the fourth quarter of 2006, the director of notebook market research at DisplaySearch, John Jacobs, said. Dell was second (15 per cent) and Acer held down third (13.3).

Apple, meanwhile, accounted for 4.1 per cent of all portable computer sales.

In other metrics, Apple did much poorer. The laptop PC market overall grew by 14.4 per cent in the fourth quarter over the third, but Apple's laptop sales actually dipped 2 per cent. HP's and Acer's portable sales, however, both surged 29 per cent quarter over quarter, and Sony did even better, boosting unit sales by 40 per cent. Sales at the struggling Dell slipped 2 per cent, and it was outsold in the quarter by HP to the tune of 1.2 million laptops.

Although the calendar fourth quarter is historically a down time for Apple -- it does its best business earlier in the year, during back-to-school sales season -- Jacobs also cited the uncertainty buyers faced as 2006 came to a close.

"Apple has an extremely loyal customer base and with MacWorld [approaching], people waited until [CEO] Steve [Jobs] announced at MacWorld [to decide if new systems would be available]", Jacobs said. Unlike in early 2006, however, when Jobs used MacWorld to debut the first Intel-based Macs, this year he touted the upcoming iPhone instead of computer hardware.

Other factors against Apple, Jacobs said, included a boom in laptop sales in the developing market, particularly India and China. Apple has long been strongest in the North American, Japanese and European markets, and weak in other areas. In the quarter that ended December 31, for instance, Apple's other segments category accounted for only 7 per cent of CPU sales.

"Look at the price points," Jacobs said. "Entry-level [Macs] are expensive compared to entry-level machines from Dell or HP or anyone else. Price is a very simple thing to convey, but it's more difficult to convey, 'Yeah, but Mac has OS X and a built-in camera and a great design.'"

It's conceivable that Apple could do well in new markets in the future, argued Jacobs, especially in China. "Long-term, I can see them doing well there, for a variety of reasons. BMW, for example, doesn't sell its Series 3 in China. Buyers want the 5 or 7 series. They don't want the entry level; they want to show off their wealth. And with Apple's attention to detail and design, they could do very well."

Apple does lead rival computer makers in one laptop benchmark, Jacobs said: It was the first to break the 50-50 barrier of desktops sold versus portables. "Apple has led that trend over the last five years," he said. "Now it's roughly a 60-40 split [favouring notebooks]. The industry as a whole is at 60-40, desktops. We don't expect the 50-50 mark overall to come until about 2009."

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Gregg Keizer

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