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Measuring the iPod effect

news analysis Apple's Mac sales are up, but it's hard to say how much the ubiquitous iPod has helped.

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.

news analysis According to popular consensus, the much beloved iPod has boosted Apple Computer's Mac sales and may ultimately help the company get into phones.

But five years of PC sales data paint a far more complicated picture than conventional wisdom would have it.

Did the arrival and popularity of the iPod coincide with a reversal of an ominous slide in sales of personal computers at Apple? Yes. But sales at many other PC makers grew as well. And some, like Acer, which doesn't even have a digital music player, gained market share at a much quicker pace than Apple.

In fact, industry experts say other factors, such as lower prices and new technology, may have as much to do with the slow reversal of the Mac's fortunes as the iPod.

iPod and PC figures

In 2002, the first full year Apple sold the iPod, Apple accounted for 2.23 percent of the worldwide PC market and 3.53 percent of the U.S. market, according to figures from IDC. In 2003, Apple's global share declined to 1.99 percent and its market share in the U.S. sank to 3.17 percent.

A new trend emerged in 2004. Apple's worldwide market share continued to drop, hitting 1.96 percent. But in the U.S.--the region where the iPod has been the most popular--it rose to 3.32 percent. In 2005, the worldwide figure rose to 2.27 percent while the U.S. figure jumped to 4 percent.

Wall Street analysts at the time claimed that anecdotal evidence indicated some consumers may have been switching to Macs from other PCs.

Overall, Apple shipped 52 percent more computers in 2005 than it did in 2002. And so far, 2006 is shaping up to be a banner year. In the third quarter, Apple accounted for 2.79 percent of the global market and 5.71 percent of the U.S. market.

How much of the surge can be attributed to the iPod? That depends on your perspective. Market share in PCs has jumped. A similar "halo effect," theoretically, could give Apple a boost if, as many expect, it pushes into phones. But the iPod isn't the only thing goosing Mac sales.

"I think the iPod turned many consumers onto the Apple brand, and created something of a halo effect, but nothing drastic," wrote Doug Bell at IDC in an email. "You can also argue that the Intel and Boot Camp (a program that lets Mac users boot up Windows) moves helped them more recently."

No doubt, Apple is selling plenty of iPods. Apple shipped 8.7 million iPods in its fourth quarter, which ended in September; giving it about 75 percent of the U.S. market. It shipped 1.6 million computers

Acer vs. Apple
But during the same period, a lot of other consumer PC companies surged without selling music players.

Acer, once a declining PC brand out of Taiwan, has been the fastest-growing major PC maker in the world for the four years and consistently outpaced Apple, Dell and others in most quarters. In 2005, the company grew shipments by 58.1 percent. Acer now commands 5.9 percent of the world market and is the fourth largest vendor, according to Gartner. In 2003, the company only had 2.9 percent of the worldwide market, or about half as much, and wasn't in the top five.

Put another way, Acer has grown at a faster rate than Apple, even though Acer is a larger company. Mathematically, that's hard to accomplish. Acer's secret? It tries to come out with the lowest-priced, or most feature-heavy, notebooks in the mid- and upper- price bands.

Over the past five years, Toshiba, Gateway and Sony have all experienced the kind of sustained growth spurts Apple currently enjoys.

"The halo effect is barely detectable," said Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies. "There has been a jump in notebooks in the past two quarters that could be attributed partly to iPod, but they are lagging in desktops."

Apple wasn't immediately available for comment.

Interestingly, Apple still has a lower market share worldwide than it had before Steve Jobs returned as CEO--and at that time sales were plummeting.

Kay also notes that Apple's notebook line has undergone a massive rewrite in the past two years. The company began to insert Intel chips into its PCs, which allowed Apple to modernize its laptop line at a time when laptop sales were growing. Thus, Apple could have benefited from a mini-surge of pent-up demand.

Apple is also more price-competitive in notebooks than it used to be. "It could be as simple as that," said Kay. Further growth could be stymied by the fact that Apple primarily sells to consumers, which represent less than half of the PC market. Business buyers, still concerned about compatibility, still don't buy a lot of Macintoshes. The U.S. consumer market only accounts for about 11 percent of PC sales worldwide.

Then there is the Mac OS X factor. The operating system, which suffered through several years of delays, came out in March 2001, a couple of months before the debut of the iPod.

Then again, the lack of a halo effect could be a good thing for Apple. Analysts at iSuppli have said that flash memory sales indicate that MP3 player sales are slowing. And ultimately, for Mac fans, it will be better if their favorite computer thrives on its own merits, rather than on the hyper-sales of a digital music player.


Correction: Because of an editing error, this story incorrectly gave the relative sizes of Acer and Apple. Acer is the larger company.