iPad trends may mean sleepless nights for PC makers

Users' love affair with Apple's tablet could affect PC sales in 2011, says analyst

Although sales of Apple's iPad haven't panicked PC makers yet, trends by tablet owners may give laptop manufacturers some sleepless nights next year, a market research analyst said today.

Contrary to popular myth and reports earlier this month , the iPad isn't cannibalizing the PC market, said Stephen Baker, analyst with the NPD Group. According to an NPD-conducted survey of iPad owners, just 13% of them bought the tablet in place of a PC.

"People are equating usage with sales," said Baker, who described how confusing the two can lead some to conclude that because they see lots of iPads in the wild, the tablet must be taking sales away from traditional PCs -- especially netbooks and secondary notebooks.

Not true. Not yet, anyway.

"To put a number on the iPad's impact on netbook or notebook sales is premature," said Baker, noting that's especially true before this year's holiday selling season. "It's obvious we won't have the answers Dec. 15. Maybe Dec. 15, 2011, but not this year."

That's because iPad rivals won't show up in number until after the holidays, said Baker.

Even then, it may be very difficult to tell whether non-Apple tablets will make inroads into the PC business. "Everyone else looks like they're going to be doing seven-inch tablets," Baker said. "That strikes me as a very big difference from the iPad's, what, 10-in. screen."

Size mattered in netbooks, where initial models that sported dinky 8-in. screens were essentially shunned, Baker added. "People hated the little tiny screens," he said. "They found them hard to use. It wasn't until netbook makers offered 10-in., or really, 11-in. screens, that they started to take off.

"So if a tablet like the iPad is a great product at 10 inches, it's not necessarily a great product at seven inches," he said.

But there are indications that the iPad specifically, and tablets in general, may put a crimp on PC sales down the road.

NPD's survey found that the longer iPad owners have the tablet, the more they use it. The trend applies to both early adopters -- people who bought an iPad in its first two months of availability -- and later buyers.

"As Apple increases iPad distribution and consumer interest peaks, the profile of an iPad owner is much more likely to mirror the overall tech population," Baker noted. "When that does happen, other tech products with similar usage profiles as the iPad, such as notebooks, netbooks, and e-readers, will come under increased pressure from the iPad."

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