Give iPad some credit for Apple's brisk Mac sales

HP still ranked at No. 1 in Q4 but saw PC shipments fall hard, partly due to fears over company's plans to dump PC business

PC sales for the fourth quarter of 2011 proved disappointing, with shipments falling by 1.4 percent year over year, according to preliminary figures from Gartner. Economic uncertainty and hard-drive shortages played roles in that dip but don't fully explain away why HP's PC sales were disproportionately disappointing for the quarter, whereas Apple's were quite impressive. The answer may partially lie in the soaring interest in tablets and smartphones, along with general consumer confusion about Ultrabooks.

First, though, the numbers: Comparing Q4 of 2010 to Q4 of 2011, HP saw its global PC shipments drop by 16 percent and U.S. shipments by 26 percent. HP still held the No. 1 spots for both markets for the quarter, but by significantly smaller margins compared to one year ago. U.S. shipments of Macs for the quarter, meanwhile soared an impressive 20.7 percent, lifting Apple into the No. 3 spot in terms of market share among the top PC vendors in the nation. (Gartner did not include tablets of any kind in its figures, just desktop and mobile PCs.)

Some obvious factors contributed to HP's unfortunate 2011 Q4 sales figures. For starters, the already-reeling company suffered a self-inflicted wound by announcing in August plans to dump its PC business -- only to reverse course a month later after appointing a new CEO in Meg Whitman. That kind of maneuvering doesn't inspire faith in any user or organization in the market for a PC -- at least not one who prefers buying from a company that will offer support for the long haul.

Lenovo capitalized on HP's foundering, and through aggressive pricing in both the professional and consumer markets enjoyed a 23 percent quarterly year-over-year growth in worldwide PC shipments. Lenovo now holds 14 percent of the market share, up from 11.3 percent. That put it just 2 percent shy of HP's top-ranked market share for the quarter.

There's also "the halo effect," which has arguably helped boost Mac sales ever since the iPod caught on. The theory beyond the halo effect says, if customers fall in love with one of a company's products they are more likely to purchase other products from the company. Following that logic, the iPod has helped boost Mac sales among consumers over the past few years. Combining the halo effect with the trend toward consumerization of IT means that consumers and professionals who are hungrily grabbing up iPhones and iPads are also gravitating toward Macs. Those also tend to be the folks who can more readily afford pricier Mac hardware, another factor boosting Apple PC sales the past holiday season.

Those factors contributed to U.S. Mac shipments growing from 1.7 million to 2.1 million, year over year, and help explain why Apple ended the quarter in the No. 3 market share spot. By comparison, at the end of Q4 2010, Apple was ranked No. 5 behind Toshiba and Acer.

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