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Thursday, February 07, 2013, 03:04 pm PT (06:04 pm ET)

Apple now nearly as big as Microsoft Windows in personal computing sales

Apple has passed Microsoft in profitability and revenues, but now the company is approaching a new, nearly unfathomable milestone: surpassing Windows in terms of global personal computing unit share.

Computing goes mobile, without Microsoft



Apple's share of conventional PC device sales is now over 20 percent, thanks to the rapid adoption of iPad.

Apple's three year old iPad has become so influential over the PC market that Canalys has actually dropped the term "tablet" (used by Microsoft for more than last two decades) and adopted "pad" when speaking of the iPad's market in a generic terms.

However, Apple's success with Macs and iPads has been overshadowed by the growth of iPhone. That has occured even as Microsoft's own attempts to deliver a mobile version of Windows first stalled, then imploded under intense competitive pressure that Windows never had to face during its heyday in the 1990s.

Apple closing on Microsoft

Image: ben-evans.com


As a result, the number of personal computing devices sold by Apple have now hit a quarterly record total just shy of 80 million units: 75 million iOS devices and 4.1 million Macs. The relationship between Apple's devices and global Windows PC sales was recently graphed out by Benedict Evans (above).

Apple's personal computing sales are now approaching 90 percent of the sales of WindowsGlobal sales of PC (including Macs) have remained essentially flat at around 90 million per quarter, meaning that Apple's personal computing sales are now approaching 90 percent of the sales of Windows, which has represented the world's largest computing platform for decades.

Other computing platforms, including Unix, Linux and Android, can also claim millions of users; Apple's iOS and OS X could even be considered part of "Unix," just as Android could be considered as a distro of Linux (which itself could be roped into the definition of "Unix-like" operating systems). However, no one company has control over how those generic platforms are implemented or directly manages their future the way Apple manages its Cocoa platforms.

This sets up a natural comparison between Apple's shipments of computing devices (which all run software created using Apple's development tools) and the global shipments of devices shipping with a version of Microsoft Windows. Just a few years ago, Apple was shipping a tiny sliver of the world's PCs by any measure.

Apple grows upward, with room for dramatic growth



Apple's growing importance in personal computing is closely tied to its success in launching and maintaining software markets for its platforms, a factor that distinguishes it from the DIY approach of Google and stumbling efforts by Microsoft to duplicate a rich ecosystem around Windows Mobile and its reboot named Windows Phone.

But Apple's growth is just taking root. While the company's Macintosh found it very difficult to break into enterprise circles, its iPhone and iPad have been enthusiastically adopted by corporations and government agencies. That in turn has softened the opposition to Windows alternatives on the desktop, resulting in the recent prediction by Gartner that "by 2014, Apple will be as accepted by enterprise IT as Microsoft is today."

Given Apple's relatively small representation among conventional PCs, this means the company has vast untapped markets to draw upon for increased sales, even as PC makers worldwide suffer from iPad cannibalization, stagnant unit growth and rapidly slipping profit margins.

Windows faces a RIM future



Apple's rapid climb upward toward Windows devices in global unit sales calls to mind the company's 2010 announcement that it had passed RIM in phone sales, a similarly unthinkable metric at the time.

In his October 2010 comments during the company's quarterly results call, Steve Jobs could confidently say, "We've now passed RIM. I don't see them catching up with us in the foreseeable future. It will be a challenge for them to create a mobile software platform and convince developers to support a third platform."

The cyclical nature of iPhone sales, which represents the majority of Apple's unit sales, means that it won't likely surpass Microsoft's global shipments of Windows before the end of 2013.

Apple's consistent growth and its success in selling both full sized tablets and smaller mobile devices from iPhones to the iPod touch and iPad mini stands in stark contrast to Microsoft's failure.However, Apple's consistent growth and its success in selling both full sized tablets and smaller mobile devices from iPhones to the iPod touch and iPad mini stands in stark contrast to Microsoft's failure to produce, design or even successfully herd its hardware partners toward sustainable sales of Windows-based phones, tablets, slates, hybrid touch notebooks, netbooks, personal music players or interactive kiosks.

While sales of Apple's personal computing devices continue to increase across multiple markets, Microsoft's Windows platform has run into a series of challenges as the growth of the conventional PC market has stalled.

Even Microsoft's long term development efforts to escape from a RIM-like fate have instead mirrored those of the BlackBerry maker. The market welcomed both RIM's PlayBook and Microsoft's Surface, but both ran into critical reviews and failed to establish initial sales.