Mac sales miss U.S. industry average, IDC says

But rival research firm Gartner estimates the opposite

Apple's U.S. Mac sales were up just 8% in the first quarter of 2010 compared to the same period last year, less than half that of the industry average, research firm IDC said yesterday.

But analysts at rival Gartner had Mac sales up 34% year-over-year, illustrating the difficulty that outside experts have in estimating sales at the notoriously secretive Apple.

"Apple is a tough one," admitted Jay Chou, a research analyst with IDC's quarterly PC sales tracking team. "Our estimates are done through our respective channel checks, but Apple doesn't talk about sales to anyone before its earnings statement."

Apple will hold its next quarterly conference call with Wall Street and industry analysts Tuesday. That leaves both IDC and Gartner facing a guessing game that at times has produced wildly different sales estimates. Last July, for example, IDC pegged Apple's second quarter sales as down 12%, while Gartner said they would be up 2.5%. Gartner ended up being closer to the numbers Apple issued later.

U.S. industry average sales growth was 17% by IDC's tally, a more robust 20% by Gartner's. Global averages were even higher: IDC pegged worldwide PC sales gains at 24%, while Gartner estimated growth at 27% year-over-year.

Both IDC and Gartner again had Apple in fifth place in U.S. sales, the same spot it occupied in the fourth quarter of 2009. Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Acer and Toshiba led Apple last quarter, just as they had at the end of 2009.

IDC estimated that Apple sold 1.13 million Macs in the U.S. for the quarter ending March 31, a market share of 6.4%, down from the 7.4% of the previous quarter and also off the 7% of the first quarter in 2009. Gartner's significantly higher estimate of 1.4 million Mac sold represented a share of 8%, up from the previous quarter's 7.5% and the 7.2% of the same period last year.

Even though IDC had Mac sales growing slower than the overall U.S. computer business, Chou said Apple was in no danger of losing what he called its strong market. "They've always been in their own world, with their integrated hardware-software ecosystem," he said. "They continue to look strong."

Both IDC and Gartner reported an upswing in business computer buying during the quarter, which historically has been the weakest for the consumer market where Apple is strongest. "Companies that have their hand in both commercial and consumer stand to gain the most" as the recovery extends to businesses, Chou said.

The biggest winners in the first quarter, said IDC and Gartner, were Acer, which posted a 46% to 51% year-over-year sales increase, and Toshiba, which boosted U.S. sales by 49% to 50%. Acer, for example, sold about twice as many computers in the U.S. last quarter as did Apple.

Apple won't drop off the Top 5 list anytime soon, Chou confirmed. The computer maker in sixth place, Asus, is several hundred thousand units behind Apple in its U.S. sales. Netbooks, which have fueled unit sales increases of PC makers, are still "something to be reckoned with," said Chou, but IDC also noted a surge in desktop sales, something Gartner echoed.

Although Apple's iPad media tablet wasn't included in IDC's sales numbers because the firm doesn't view it as a rival for traditional notebooks or even netbooks, Chou added that it does give the company a bit of a "halo" effect.

"News of the iPad keeps consumers interested and aware of what Apple is doing," he said. "It puts Apple in the hearts and minds of consumers."

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 gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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