Apple reaches for singularity in the post-PC world

Over the last decade Apple has sought to make digital devices that would supplant stodgy PCs and feed the growing appetite for connected devices with an "i."

Steve Jobs is gone, but he would be happy to hear about the death of the PC, the desktops and clunky laptops that were the face of computing for decades.

He spent the last decade of his career seeking to make digital devices that would supplant the beasts and feed the growing appetite for sleek, connected devices in the Internet era of computing.

Jobs sought to emulate the revolutionary spirit and impact of the 1984 Macintosh, but garner the sales and market share that Microsoft's Windows spawned in the same era. It was a quest for a kind of Apple singularity, embodied in customers around the world having an emotional connection with the company and its singularly named products, such as iPod, iPhone and iPad.

Jobs and company clearly succeeded in reshaping the market and burnishing the brand with the steady stream of game-changing Apple "i" products over the last decade. In the last quarter, Apple sold 15.4 million iPads, which is more than PC sales shipments for any of the major manufacturers--Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, Dell and Acer. However, market researcher IHS estimated that Apple's share of the worldwide tablet market fell from 64 percent to 57 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011, partly driven by customers purchasing the iPhone 4S and Amazon Kindles. With the introduction of the third-generation iPad, Apple may be able to regain share even in an increasingly competitive tablet market.

In addition, the market for tablets and other personal digital devices is exploding. According to Intel's forecast, the planet will be populated by more than 15 million connected devices spread among 3 billion users by 2015. Forrester Research forecasts that about a third of all adults in the U.S. and Europe will own a tablet by 2016.

Apple sold more iPads in a quarter than PCs combined, according to Apple's numbers. Donald Bell/CNET

Even if these forecasts are overblown, the trend is inescapable. PCs are destined for recycle bins and everyone competing with Apple is gearing up to bring tablets and smartphones to the masses and businesses.

It's becoming another battle of Apple's home-grown business model versus the Android and Microsoft model of working with hardware manufactures to bring devices to market.

Microsoft and its thousands of hardware and software partners won the first round in the PC era, dwarfing Apple, which was more of a niche player and in deep trouble in the mid-1990s when Jobs returned to the company.

Now Apple and its more closed, or end-to-end, model has become a juggernaut, reflected in its status as a public corporation with a $500 billion market cap. Apple controls the hardware and software, and gets a healthy slice of revenue from apps developers; content creators and distributors; and Internet and cellular carriers. But the less cohesive competition is also doing well. According to ComScore, Google's Android software stands as the top U.S. smartphone platform, with 48.6 percent market share versus 29.5 percent for Apple, trailed significantly by RIM, Microsoft and Symbian.

While Apple has cornered the cool factor and continues to print money, the challenge will be in keeping the hits coming and not giving potential customers any reason to look beyond the "i" products. A "hit' isn't necessarily a 5-inch iPhone or 7-inch iPad, but just enough new cool and good timing to maintain momentum.

The new iPad and Apple TV introduced this week follow the grand tradition of modest innovation on a great platform. Jobs' hand-picked successor Tim Cook understands this product cycle--continuous innovation perfectly timed for upgrades and new converts snapping up the new, shiny objects, and then every few beats a stunner that resets expectations. If Cook and team can continue this rhythm, Apple will keep its crown as the most valued tech company on the planet.

 

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