iPad will reign supreme through 2013

Apple solves supply issues, makes hay on rivals' stumbles, says analyst

Apple's iPad will retain its dominance of the tablet market through at least 2013, research firm IHS iSuppli said today.

El Segundo, Calif.-based iSuppli upped its iPad sales forecast for 2011 from an earlier estimate of 43.7 million to 44.2 million, citing Apple's ability to solve its supply issues and the blunders by rivals, including Hewlett-Packard.

"Apple has resolved the iPad supply issues," said Rhoda Alexander, senior manager of tablet and monitor research in an interview today. "It was never a demand problem."

Earlier this year, Apple struggled to produce enough iPad 2 tablets to meet a surging demand for the new device. Those problems have been addressed, and Alexander said that Apple is in the cat bird's seat for the second half of the year.

"All the momentum in the media tablet market is with Apple right now," she said. "The competition can't seem to field a product with the right combination of hardware, marketing, applications and content to match the iPad."

iSuppli also boosted its forecast for overall tablet sales this year from 58.9 million to 60 million units, meaning the iPad will account for nearly three-fourths of all tablets sold in 2011.

That dominance will continue through 2013, said Alexander, noting that iSuppli previously expected Apple to fall under the 50% share mark in 2012.

"They've taken every lesson they've learned with previous products and applied them to the iPad," said Alexander. "Their whole production process is a marvel to watch."

As is Apple's ability to keep the spotlight on the iPad through regular hardware refreshes and other major announcements, such as the upcoming iOS 5 upgrade, which is expected to debut alongside a new iPhone in September or October.

"What with the iPad, the iPhone and the MacBook Air, there's something dynamic happening every quarter, letting Apple always move the focus back to them," said Alexander.

Apple will pull attention away from competitors early next year -- late in the first quarter or early in the second -- when it launches the next iPad, Alexander noted.

Even as far down the road as 2015, iSuppli believes the iPad will account for a substantial portion of the tablet market. Of the estimated 273.5 million media tablets that will ship that year, 120.1 million, or 44%, will be iPads.

In the shorter term, Apple will be the biggest beneficiary of missteps by others, such as HP, which last week announced it was pulling out of the tablet market. Since then, HP's TouchPad, released only weeks ago, has been dumped by retailers and HP at fire sale prices.

Alexander credited the iPad's supremacy -- she called 2011 a "one-horse race" -- on several factors, including the educational and business sectors' interest in Apple's tablet, as well as the company's success in Asian markets, particularly China.

Greater China -- the term Apple uses to describe the People's Republic, Hong Kong and Taiwan -- generated 13% of Apple's total revenues last quarter.

Alexander mentioned educational sales of the iPad several times as a factor in the tablet's strong sales. "There's a huge interest in tablets in education, and the favorite by far is the iPad," she said.

Apple has historically been a major player in the educational market, and has leveraged that to push the iPad into schools, both K-12 and college. "They laid this groundwork for years," Alexander said.

But the iPad is not invulnerable. At some point -- specifically, 2014 -- the iPad will be surpassed by rival tablets, according to iSuppli.

Looking that far into the future is tricky, Alexander acknowledged, because of unknowns, including how Microsoft's Windows 8 -- and its successor -- will do on tablets.

"Lower price points will play a part," she said, referring to expectations that other tablet makers, particularly those that rely on Google's Android operating system, will eventually be able to beat the iPad on price. "But there's the 'market diversity' factor too, when a whole lot of competitors are in the market. Some will have success, some won't, but it will expand the market."

The rise of Android-based smartphones, which in toto now outsell the iPhone, is "the perfect parallel" to how iSuppli sees the tablet market developing, said Alexander.

"And Apple's patent litigation is serving to slow or complicate competitors' entry into some key regional markets," Alexander observed. "With Apple lapping its competitors, many of whom are still struggling to get out of the starting gate, this remains a one-horse race."

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 gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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