Is Apple the real U.S. PC market share leader -- or soon will be?

The answer to the question depends on how iPad is classified and how the shipments add up combined with Macs. Is iPad a PC, like Windows tablets or low-powered netbooks? The definition is sure to generate controversy because of what's at stake -- which manufacturer is market share leader in the United States.

Late yesterday, I contacted Gartner and IDC, which both measure global PC shipments. But only Gartner responded to my question about how iPad is classified. It is clear from preliminary second quarter PC shipment data that neither analyst firm calculated iPad with PC shipments (Gartner explicitly explained so in its press release: "Gartner's PC group does not track media tablet sales in this PC shipment data, so iPad sales are not included in these results.") A Gartner spokesperson responded to my question about classification: "We don't have data for this category yet. We hope to have some stats for this category at some time shortly."

But what category is that? Media tablets? Windows tablets have been shipping for years, then there are slate netbooks. Don't these devices count as PCs? If so, then why not iPad? Apple's tablet has a microprocessor, graphics processor and storage disk, runs an operating system and third-party applications and connects to the Internet. That sure sounds like a personal computer to me. There's a touch keypad, or the user can attach a physical keyboard by Bluetooth. If PC classification requires a mouse, well, iPad doesn't have one of those. But should no mouse make iPad no PC?

So I'll ask you, before showing why the classification is so important: What is a PC? Please answer in comments.

In mid July, Gartner and IDC released preliminary worldwide PC shipments. Final numbers should be soon coming, now that Dell and HP announced quarterly results (yesterday). Both analyst firms placed HP No. 1 during second quarter for global PC shipments. HP and Dell ranked first and second, respectively, in the United States. Their rankings were based on estimated shipments. The analyst firms should have had final data from most other PC manufacturers before making the preliminary announcement.

Global Top 5, Gartner

1. HP, 14.455 million
2. Acer, 10.796 million
3. Dell, 10.283 million
4. Lenovo, 8.31 million
5. ASUS, 4.318 million

US Top 5, Gartner

1. HP, 4.608 million
2. Dell, 4.236 million
3. Acer, 2.028 million
4. Apple, 1.749 million
5. Toshiba, 1.565 million

According to Apple's fiscal third calendar-quarter earnings announcement, 3.472 million Macs shipped during calendar Q2. Apple also shipped 3.27 million iPads. If iPad counts as a PC and the numbers are combined, then Apple shipped 6.742 million personal computers during second quarter. That's high enough to raise Apple to No. 5 in global PC shipments.

Figuring US placement is dicier, because publicly-available information is incomplete. Apple announced 2 million iPads sold on May 31, which effectively means through the 30th -- or two days after international sales started. During the last month of the quarter, iPad was available in 10 countries. Apple hasn't released a geographic breakdown of sales and probably won't. The first million units came before Apple opened international sales, which is more than enough to push Apple ahead of Acer and snatch away third place.

But how much of that remaining 2.27 million units went to the United States? If 1.487 million (plus the 1 million for certain), then Apple would match Dell. If 1.859 million (plus the 1 million for certain), then Apple would match HP -- based on Gartner's preliminary data. To match Dell, international sales would be only 783,000 and 411,000 to match HP. However, IDC puts Apple unit shipments lower (1.618 million) and HP and Dell higher (4.721 million and 4.408 million, respectively). Based on those figures, it's unrealistic that Apple would rank any higher than third place. Again, the numbers are not exact. Gartner and IDC released preliminary shipments, and Apple's data stops two days before the quarter ended.

But what about third quarter? Could Apple top Dell or HP? The answer would depend on how iPad is classified. Is it a PC? If, yes, then based on analysts projections for PCs, Macs and iPads, Apple almost certainly could sell more units than HP or Dell in the United States. I've seen Wall Street analysts' iPad shipment estimates range from about 4 million to over 5 million units. Macs: Hovering above 3 million units. Assuming even half the combined Macs and iPads were sold here, Apple would be in striking distance of topping either HP or Dell.

In several previous blogs, I've asserted that iPad is the cheapest Mac that anyone can buy. But should iPad be counted as a PC? Netbooks are PCs, and ASUS recently reduced netbook shipments because of iPad competition. Apple's tablet certainly competes with PCs. Should it be counted as one? You tell me. In comments.

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