Apple's Computer Sales Slide

Apple's share of the U.S. computer market dropped nearly 16% in the fourth quarter of 2008 as the economy continued its freefall, a research analyst said last week.

According to Gartner Inc.'s preliminary estimates, Apple sold 1.25 million machines in the U.S. during the last three months of 2008, an 8% increase year-to-year over the same period in 2007, but down 23% from the quarter before. Apple's performance dumped it into fourth place, a fall of one spot, behind Dell Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Acer Inc.

For the quarter, Apple accounted for 8% of all the machines sold in the U.S, a 16% decline from the 9.5% in the year's third quarter. However, its sales share was still up from 2007's final quarter's number of 6.7%. And it held its own in general consumer electronics.

The poorer showing is not a complete surprise, since Apple historically sees a drop in sales share in the fourth quarter because of its strong back-to-school sales in the third quarter. Even so, the company continued to beat the U.S. average, down a dismal 10.1%, and posted positive numbers, something Dell and HP, the No. 1 and No. 2 U.S. sellers, couldn't manage.

Dell's estimated fourth quarter sales, for example, dropped 16.4% compared to the same period the year before, while HP's fell 3.4%.

Acer was easily the big winner last quarter, said Gartner, as it pushed Apple out of the No. 3 spot to capture 15.2% of the U.S. market and year-to-year gains of 55%. Gartner analyst Mikako Kitagawa attributed Acer's success to sales of inexpensive mini-notebooks. Those laptops, often dubbed "netbooks," and characterized by their small size, light weight and low price, did well in the face of the economic downturn.

And that bodes ill for Apple, which doesn't have a system in a category that grew by 20% from the third to the fourth quarter . "Because Apple doesn't have a presence there, it might have been affected," Kitagawa said.

Another possible explanation for Apple's slowdown, said Kitagawa, is its pricing. "I just don't know if their price was being accepted by consumers," she said.

Apple's least expensive laptop is a $999 MacBook, the single leftover model from the discontinued line featuring plastic cases. Netbooks, meanwhile, typically sell for under $500, and often for considerably less. Amazon.com, for instance, sells Acer's popular Aspire One 8.9-in. netbook for under $350.

Gartner rival IDC, meanwhile, also slotted Apple into the No. 4 spot, with an estimated 1.24 million systems sold, or 7.2% of all sales. IDC's estimates had Apple posting a year-to-year growth rate of just 7.5% for the fourth quarter, better than the negative numbers of Dell and HP. Like Gartner, IDC said that Apple's gains looked lackluster compared to Acer's 35.8% increase.

Analysts from both Gartner and IDC bemoaned the state of U.S. computer sales, with Kitagawa pointing out that the quarter's sales slide was the biggest since the last U.S. recession in 2001.

"The fourth quarter started out with a relatively optimistic view, but then it got worse every month," she said, noting that only consumer sales looked strong, and then only because of low prices for netbooks and steep price cuts for other systems.

"The value of the market shrank as a result of competitive pricing and the introduction of lower-priced mini-notebooks," said Doug Bell, an analyst with IDC, in a statement.

Nor should computer makers expect any good news soon. "The first half of 2009 looks pretty shaky, as the economic fundamentals need to recover before spending on PCs will resume," said Bell.

Apple is scheduled to deliver its earnings report on Jan. 21 after the stock market closes, and will reveal 2008 fourth quarter sales figures then. In the third calendar quarter, Apple said it sold 1.12 million computers in the Americas, and another 596,000 in its retail stores, the bulk of which are in the U.S.

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