Apple nears 10% market share in U.S. sales

But lack of a netbook may haunt the company down the road

Apple Inc. accounted for nearly 10% of all U.S. computer sales last quarter, but the lack of a model in the growing netbook category could mean trouble ahead, a research analyst said today.

According to Gartner Inc.'s preliminary estimates, Apple sold 1.64 million machines during the period, a 29% increase year-to-year over the same period in 2007, to put it in third place behind Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. For the quarter, Apple accounted for 9.5% of all the machines sold in the U.S, up from 8.1% a year ago and 8.5% last quarter.

Although Apple's year-to-year growth rate continued to outpace the U.S. average -- pegged at 4.6% by Gartner -- the company's trend line has started to flatten a bit, said analyst Mikako Kitagawa. While she acknowledged that Apple's growth remains "phenomenal," last quarter's gains outstripped the average by slightly more than six times. The quarter before, Gartner had put Apple's year-to-year growth at 38%, more than 10 times the U.S. average.

Gloomy economic conditions have had an impact on Apple, Kitagawa said, although she was unwilling to detail how much the company had been affected , in part because Gartner's numbers were guesstimates. Apple won't release its official sales tallies for the quarter until next Tuesday, when it announces the quarter's financial figures.

But there's one trend building that Apple has so far missed, she noted. Netbooks, the mini-laptops personified by the Eee PC from Asustek Computer Inc., the Aspire One from Acer and the Mini-Note from HP, accounted for about 5% of all mobile sales in the U.S. last quarter. And Apple doesn't have an entry in that race.

"Even though Apple lowered prices yesterday [for the MacBook], it's still above other laptops in the U.S.," Kitagawa said, adding that the average selling price for a laptop in the U.S. last quarter was in the $920-930 range, less than the new $999 price of Apple's lowest-priced laptop. "Netbooks' prices are even lower, less than $500, and averaging $349-399," she said. "That's bringing down the average selling price. I don't know how Apple can play there."

In the future, Apple could lose market share if netbooks gain popularity, a distinct possibility assuming people, even Apple's customers, have to pinch pennies. "Mini-notebooks are expanding the market, but if you're not in the mini-notebook market, your market share will definitely shrink. People will want to save $50, $100."

Gartner rival IDC, meanwhile, also pegged Apple's position in the U.S. at third, with an estimated 1.65 million systems sold, or 9.1% of all sales. IDC's estimates had Apple posting a year-to-year growth rate of 32% for the quarter, the same growth rate as the April-through-June period.

Neither Gartner or IDC was willing to go on the record about whether netbook sales were cannibalizing lower-end laptops, or additive. "It's not clear whether they are creating a new market, but eating into the existing market," said Kitagawa.

"A new pecking order may emerge among vendors as the market leans toward notebooks with ever-declining average sales price," said IDC analyst Jay Chou in a statement Wednesday. "What remains to be seen is how much cannibalization will occur, and the degree to which mounting economic pressures will stifle PC market growth over the next year."

Kitagawa saw the coming times as a test for not only Apple, but also its notoriously-loyal customers. "This will be a really good test of how loyal they are to Apple," she said. "Will they want to spend extra? How much can they keep that going forward?

"How strong is that Apple love?" she asked.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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