Is the iPad a Notebook Killer?

August was an awful month for notebook PC makers. Sales growth, slowing since the iPad arrived, has slipped into negative numbers. But has Apple cursed the industry, or is the story murkier than that?

notebook sales


New statistics from Morgan Stanley Research seem pretty damning for the notebook industry. After months of decline, the unit sales growth rate per month dipped into the negative in August. Is this a statistical blip, or is the iPad really hitting laptop sales?

Morgan Stanley’s reasoning: “tablet cannibalization.” Since the Apple iPad is pretty much the only device in this class that’s on the market, the implication is that its arrival has resulted in a serious dint on the potential for notebooks to sell well. With more countries due soon to join those already selling the iPad, and an armload of competitors just about to arrive, the makers of PC laptops should be worried.

Or should they? Let’s look at the stats. The bars in the graph above are “US Retail Notebook Y/Y Unit Growth.” That means they’re tracking how many more laptops were sold each month compared to last year’s figure. In December 2009, for example, U.S. consumers bought 70% more laptops than they did in December 2008. But unless we know the figures for December 2007–not included here–we don’t know if December 2008 was a particularly depressed month (which, given the cataclysmic state of the economy at the time, seems more than likely). Similarly, the 4% drop in August 2010 means there were 4% fewer laptops sold this year than in August last year. But we don’t know if August last year was a bumper sales season.

The only true certainty in Morgan Stanley’s report is this quote: “the first time those numbers had actually gone negative.” Never before have netbook sales gone down, year-on-year, in any single month. But the iPad isn’t the only potential culprit. Consumers are using (ever more powerful) smartphones for low-grade work while on the road. Both the rise of the Android Army and the new iPhone 4 may play into the sales figures.

The one test to see if the iPad is a netbook killer is if it can be reproduced in other nations, with a similar depression in notebook sales after the iPad became available. We’ll know soon enough.

Of course, we know the iPad is having an effect: More than 3 million people have handed over more than $500 each for one, meaning they’re unlikely to commit hundreds of dollars more to a laptop anytime soon. The time looks ripe for a move to tablet-format devices: It’s the next evolution in the portable computing game. But you should be hesitant in assuming the iPad’s having such a noticeable affect on a multi-billion-dollar industry so very soon, and based on such tricky stats.


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