Apple outpaced the rest of the U.S. PC market, which also grew an impressive 24 percent year-over-year during the fourth quarter (the three-month period ending December), according to preliminary data released Wednesday by market research firm IDC. Apple's sales were enough to keep its placement as the fifth-largest domestic PC maker, behind HP, Dell, Acer and Toshiba, respectively.
In total, Apple sold an estimated 5.6 million computers in the U.S. in during the 2009 calendar year, good for an overall 8 percent share. That's up slightly from the 5.2 million units and 7.9 percent share the Cupertino-based company saw in 2008, representing 8.2 percent year-over-year growth. Apple was the fourth-largest U.S. PC maker in all of 2009.
While Apple is growing, sales data shows that its slice of the market — as quantified by market research firms like IDC — is not. That can be attributed to the booming market for low-end netbooks, which sell for a few hundred dollars and earn manufacturers razor-thin profit margins. By comparison, Apple's believed to retain some of the highest margins in the industry, often hovering above 30 percent.
"Low-cost notebooks and mini-notebooks were the biggest contributors to the successful fourth quarter," said David Daoud, research manager with IDC's U.S. Quarterly PC tracker.
Overall PC growth during the fourth quarter was bolstered by the launch of Windows 7, which pushed the industry to a record quarter of 20.7 million units for the three-month period. IDC said that consumer confidence was a key factor in these advances, though business spending has lagged behind and is likely to take some more time to take hold.
"The U.S. market exploded in the 4th quarter driven by a series of factors contributing to the unexpected 24% year-on-year growth," Daoud said. "First is the rubber-band effect and recovery from the year-ago quarter, which suffered from buyer contraction when the economic crisis was confirmed. Then vendors responded with new low price points to stimulate demand and face competition."
Preliminary U.S. PC Vendor Unit Shipment Estimates for 4Q09 (Thousands of Units) | Source: IDC
Global sales were also strong, with the market seeing a 15.8 percent yearly gain. Overall, the fourth quarter of 2009 represented the first double-digit growth in PC shipments since the third quarter of 2008, IDC said.
Of the big names, the strongest fourth quarter performance worldwide came from HP, which captured 20.7 percent of the market. It was followed by Acer, Dell, Lenovo and Toshiba, respectively. Acer and Dell switched places, with Dell coming in second for the entirety of 2009, while the rest held strong to their previous rankings. Of the top 5, only Dell lost share in the calendar year, dropping 9.4 percent.
"The market has weathered a storm which looks to be behind us," said Jay Chou, research analyst, Worldwide Quarterly PC Tracker. "But decreasing margins will soon become even more pertinent as one considers the long term effects of holding market share at the cost of profitability.
"Without an effective strategy to convey a clear usage model and feature set tied to each segment, the market will inevitably continue down the slippery slope of 'good-enough' computing sold to the lowest bidder."
Apple's modest volume shipments compared to its larger rivals have continually placed the company outside the rankings of the top five global PC makers. Market research firms like IDC therefore fail to report how the Mac maker stacks up against its peers on a global scale.
Also Wednesday, IDC rival Gartner released preliminary results for the fourth quarter of calendar year 2009. Gartner also found Apple to be the fifth-largest U.S. PC vendor, with a 7.5 percent share for the three month frame.
Apple shipped an estimated 1.5 million units in the fourth quarter, a 23.3 percent increase from the same period in 2008. But Apple's yearly market share slipped 200 basis points, from 7.7 percent at the end of 2008.
Gartner found overall PC shipments increased 26.5 percent year over year, totaling 19.8 million for the December quarter. The top PC manufacturer was HP, with a 30 percent market share, followed by Dell, Acer and Toshiba, respectively.
"Shipment growth was largely driven by low-priced consumer mobile PCs, both in regular notebooks and mini-notebooks," said Mikako Kitagawa, principal analyst with Gartner. "As economic weakness continued, buyers became extremely price sensitive. Low-priced PCs were good enough for many average consumers."
Acer in particular was driven higher by its sub-$500 netbooks. The company saw a 48.4 increase in U.S. sales, and a 41.5 boost worldwide in the fourth quarter. Gartner noted that the increased share may not, however, be a sustainable business.
"Aggressive promotion by PC vendors and channels stimulated consumer PC demand," Kitagawa said. "However, some vendors made damaging price cuts to increase market share."
Gartner said HP moved past Dell based on more competitive pricing and successful team-ups with large retailers. Dell also couldn't compete in the price battle, and has had continued weakness in the enterprise market.
Globally, total unit sales increased 22.1 percent year over year to a total of 90 million. Capturing the top spot was HP, with 17.8 million units shipped, securing the company a 19.8 percent market share. They were followed, in order, by Acer, Dell, Lenovo and Toshiba.
Total worldwide PC shipments in 2009 were 306 million, which was a 5.2 percent increase from 2008. The mobile PC market held the highest average selling prices as HP was the year's top global vendor with 58.9 million units sold.