Apple sold more iPad tablets last quarter than any single PC maker sold personal computers.
The company's CEO used the opportunity to again predict that the tablet market would one day be larger than that for traditional laptop and desktop PCs.
"As I've said before, I truly believe, and many others in the company believe, that there will come a day that the tablet market is larger than the PC market," Apple CEO Tim Cook said during a Tuesday earnings call with Wall Street analysts.
According to Apple, the company sold 15.4 million iPads worldwide in 2011's final three months, more than double the number it sold in the same period a year earlier and an increase of 39% over the former record of 11.1 million, set in the third quarter of last year.
Research firm IDC has estimated that Hewlett-Packard, the world's largest PC manufacturer, shipped 15.1 million computers in the fourth quarter, just short of the iPad's number. Lenovo and Dell -- numbers two and three, respectively -- shipped 13 million and 11.9 million units.
Altogether, approximately 92.7 million PCs were shipped during 2011's final quarter.
But while Apple's iPad sales were impressive, the tablet didn't generate more revenue than its PC cousins: The average sales price (ASP) of an iPad in the fourth quarter was $593, lower than either the global desktop ASP of $600 or the laptop ASP of $758.
And although the iPad outsold HP, Lenovo and Dell during last year's final months, it fell short of matching any of the top three for 2011 as a whole. During 2011, Apple said it sold 40.7 million iPads; HP, Dell and Lenovo sold 62.3 million, 44.3 million and 44 million machines, respectively, said IDC.
However, Apple's 2011 tablet sales did exceed the year's PC shipments by the world's fourth- and fifth-largest computer makers, Acer (37.2 million) and Asus (20.7 million).
But IDC analyst David Daoud, one of the team that tracks PC sales for the research company, doesn't think the comparison of tablets to computers was close to an apples-to-apples appraisal.
"No, it's not a fair comparison," Daoud said. "Tablets are companion devices to PCs that serve different purposes. Have they dampened PC sales? Yes. It's clear that there's a certain amount of cannibalization. But the [iPad] numbers speak more to the appearance of a new market and new products, not the death of the PC."
In fact, Daoud believes that the iPad's big sales number is a good sign for the PC business, not cause for doom and gloom.
"The PC [industry] will benefit from the iPad side," argued Daoud. "We are going to see, by the end of the year or early in 2013, a proliferation of devices that are going to try to compete with the iPad, a uber-computer that fills the need of the old computer world but also runs applications as a tablet.
"It's inevitable that the PC will morph into this uber-computer," Daoud said. "So I see the iPad actually invigorating the PC market."
That assumes Microsoft wraps up Windows 8 this year, and that the radically revamped operating system is a hit.
"Microsoft has a huge burden on its shoulder right now," Daoud said.
Apple sold more iPad tablets last quarter than any single PC maker sold personal computers. Will tablet sales eventually surpass PC sales?
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is email@example.com.