Apple bucked the U.S. trend last quarter by posting double-digit Mac sales gains as PC giants like HP and Dell lost share, industry research firms said Wednesday.
However, Apple dropped to the fifth spot in U.S. computer sales during the final quarter of 2010 as strong sales to businesses by rivals pushed it two places down the list.
Both Gartner and IDC had Apple in the No. 5 position for the fourth quarter, behind Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Acer and Toshiba.
Gartner analyst Mikako Kitagawa explained Apple's slip -- in the third quarter Apple had the No. 3 spot -- by citing robust sales of PCs to businesses, a market where Apple historically lags far behind behemoths like HP and Dell.
"The professional market showed healthy growth during the quarter," Kitagawa said.
IDC called out weak consumer PC sales in the U.S. too, with analyst Jay Chou citing "consumer fatigue" in many markets, including America, as interest in netbooks waned and consumers closely watched what they spent.
The shift toward business sales hurt Apple's placing in the top five lists, but that didn't prevent the company from posting solid sales figures.
According to Gartner, Apple sold 1.9 million Mac desktops and laptops during the fourth quarter to snare 9.7% of the U.S. market. IDC pegged U.S. Mac sales at 1.7 million, giving Apple an 8.7% share.
But Apple beat the U.S. industry average growth rate by huge margins, showing as it did during the heart of the recession that it can weather soft consumer spending trends better than any other computer maker.
Apple's sales for the fourth quarter were 23.7% higher than in the same quarter of 2009, said Gartner, while IDC had Apple's year-over-year increase at 15.2%. Those numbers trumped the industry average growth rate, which dropped into negative numbers in both research company's assessment. Gartner said the U.S. market fell by 6.6%, while IDC called the decline 4.8%.
Of the top five U.S. computer sellers, only Apple and Toshiba posted postitive year-on-year gains.
Acer's drop was the most precipitous of the top five manufacturers, plunging 30.4% in Gartner's results, 28.5% in IDC's.
Apple has failed just once since 2003 to grow Mac year-over-year sales faster than the industry average.
Both Gartner and IDC also pointed out that U.S. consumer PC sales have been disrupted by tablets, a market that Apple currently controls with its iPad. "Consumers didn't want to spend the money for PCs," said Kitagawa of fourth quarter sales. "They have so many more choices, including media tablets."
Analysts at Gartner and IDC speculated that the decline in consumer sales could be a permanent part of the landscape, as buyers shift dollars from replacement or additional home PCs to tablets.
Kitagawa resisted the term "cannibalization" for what tablets are doing to PC sales, saying that people weren't necessarily buying a tablet instead of a personal computer, but were buying a tablet now, then postponing upgrading the home machine.
"Some consumers are extending the life cycle of their PCs," she said. "They're holding onto the PC, but spending their discretionary income on something else, whether that's a media tablet or a game console or just eating out more."
Kitagawa said the decline in sales of traditional PCs will likely accelerate in 2011 as tablet prices drop with the expected introduction of Android-based devices that undercut the iPad's price.
IDC made the same prediction.
"This situation is likely to persist in 2011, if not worsen, as a wave of media tablets could put a dent in the traditional PC market," said IDC research director David Daoud in a statement Wednesday.
Gartner and IDC separate tablet sales from personal computer numbers, but if they put the iPad in the PC pigeonhole -- as they do netbooks, for instance -- Apple' would likely have captured the world's No. 3 spot.
Other analysts, like Brian Marshall of Gleacher & Co., have estimated worldwide iPad sales in the fourth quarter at 6 million, Mac sales during the same period at over 4 million. The total of 10 million would move Apple up to third place in IDC's global top five, behind only HP and Dell. The same 10 million would put Apple in fourth place on Gartner's list.
Apple will release its official Mac sales figures next Tuesday, Jan. 18, when it releases its fourth-quarter earnings report.
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is email@example.com.