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The iPad Threat to PCs

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Apple's (AAPL) new iPad, a lightweight device that browses the Web and delivers media, may serve as an alternative to netbooks and pose a threat to PC makers.

While the iPad is not a full-fledged PC, it's capable of handling many of the tasks consumers deem important in netbooks, stripped-down notebooks that have surged in popularity in recent years. In a lightweight package, the iPad provides access to e-mail, the Internet, and digital media such as electronic books. The cheapest version of the iPad will sell for $499, compared with about $400 or less for many kinds of netbooks. "People who are looking at netbooks will also take a very serious look at the iPad," says Charles Smulders of market research firm Gartner (IT).

That could spell trouble for computer makers such as Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Acer (2353:TT), and Dell (DELL), which relied on netbooks for growth in recent quarters as consumers and companies delayed purchases of more expensive machines. The number of PCs shipped rose 15.2% in the fourth quarter, compared with a decline of 0.4% a year earlier, according to research firm IDC. "A substantial portion" of that growth came from the sales of netbooks, says IDC analyst David Daoud.

Silver Lining: Margin Squeeze May End

If there's a silver lining in the iPad's introduction, it's that PC makers may need to boost their reliance on higher-priced devices, analysts say. Sales of netbooks can put pressure on average selling prices that if unchecked can lead to narrower margins. "The netbook market has created a race to zero margins," Forrester (FORR) analyst James McQuivey says. "It has created a market where higher-priced, higher-margin notebooks have a harder time selling because consumers think they can get essentially the same experience in a netbook with a lower price."

So if netbook growth slows, PC vendors may need to refocus their efforts on selling higher-margin traditional notebooks, says Daoud of IDC. "It will bring some needed sanity and new alternatives for the PC industry," Daoud says. "For so long, all they could do was drive down prices. Now they can think outside the box and bring out devices that will compete with Apple at prices they can live with."

Sumit Agnihotry, a vice-president at PC maker Acer, which sells several netbooks, says the smaller computers will probably keep their place in the PC industry. "The industry has proven that the netbook is an important category," he says. "We think they're here to stay." Still he says Acer is working on a tablet product that will compete head-to-head with Apple's iPad. It's due to be announced in the second half of 2010.

iPad Will Tempt PC Tablet Users

Apple's iPad may also make a dent in sales of existing tablet-style computers, a category that has been available for the better part of a decade but failed to catch on with consumers. Only about 1.03 million tablets were sold in 2009, down from 1.3 million in 2008, according to Gartner. Tablets are generally aimed at businesses that have a specific need for a PC that accepts input from a pen-shaped stylus. Though the iPad doesn't use a stylus, there's a good chance that its thin, lightweight body could lure some business users away from their tablets.

Harry Labana is chief technology officer of Citrix Systems (CTXS), which makes software that gives mobile devices, including Apple's iPhone, the ability to access software and files on other computers remotely. He sees opportunity for sales of the iPad in areas such as medicine. For example, doctors who want to view patient records or X-ray images can do so from a device like the iPad that connects remotely to another computer where patient files are stored. "Not everyone who spends their work day walking around needs a full-power laptop or a PC to read certain data or to send mail," he says.

Hewlett-Packard introduced a tablet it calls the Slate at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in early January. "The slate category is exciting and will be the focus of multiple efforts on several platforms in the industry," says HP spokeswoman Marlene Somsak. "We'll have a number of products in this space this year and beyond." She declined t comment specifically on the iPad. A spokeswoman for Dell declined to comment.

Apple says it expects to start shipping the iPad by the end of March. The company may sell 3 million to 4 million in the first 12 months it's available, says Gene Munster, an analyst at Piper Jaffray (PJC). It may sell 8 million iPads in 2011, he says.

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