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iPad and other tablets now digging into PC sales

Sales of tablets worldwide — and at this point, that's primarily Apple's iPad — are hurting sales of PCs, according to a preliminary forecast by Gartner released Monday.

The research firm revised its PC sales estimates for 2010 from a 17.9 percent increase to 14.3 percent over 2009. Next year, PC sales will increase 15.9 percent, down from the firm's earlier projection of 18.1 percent growth.

The reason? "Weaker consumer demand" for PCs and "growing user interest in media tablets such as the iPad," said Ranjit Atwal, research director at Gartner. "Over the longer term, media tablets are expected to displace around 10 percent of PC units by 2014."

Gartner's report reinforces its October findings, saying that the "all-in-one nature" of tablets "will result in the cannibalization of other consumer electronics devices such as e-readers, gaming devices and media players." The firm believes that "driven by sales of the iPad," tablet sales, worldwide, are expected to reach 19.5 million units this year, 54.8 million units in 2011, exceeding 208 million units in 2014.

The tablet dent is a significant one, considering the iPad was released last spring, and the Samsung Galaxy Tab, considered the iPad's main competitor right now, just within the past month.

Indeed, iPads have been flying off store shelves so far this holiday shopping season, says Piper Jaffray, as noted in a report by Fortune Monday. The firm measured Black Friday sales of Apple products, and said iPads were selling at a rate of 8.8 units an hour, more than for Mac computers.

The iPad, said Gene Munster of Piper Jaffray, "is becoming "the Mac of the masses." And, he believes Apple will sell 5.5 million iPads this quarter alone.

The Galaxy Tab is also doing extremely well, with more than 600,000 sold so far, according to Samsung.

PCs, said George Shiffler, Gartner research director in a statement, "are still seen as necessities, but the PC industry's inability to significantly innovate and its overreliance on a business model predicated on driving volume through price declines are finally impacting the industry's ability to induce new replacement cycles.

"As the PC market slows, vendors that differentiate themselves through services and technology innovation rather than unit volume and price will dictate the future. Even then, leading vendors will be challenged to keep PCs from losing the device 'limelight' to more innovative products that offer better dedicated compute capabilities."

In some markets around the world, where income is much less than in places like the United States, "there is good chance that consumers will simply leapfrog PCs and move directly to alternative devices in the coming years rather than following the traditional pattern of purchasing a PC as their first computing device," Gartner said.

While tablets are a key reason for the expected decrease in PC sales, there are others, Gartner said:

Consumer wallets are continuing "to shrink": Home "mobile PCs have suffered the steepest downgrade with shipments in mature markets expected to be significantly weaker. Consumers in the U.S. and Western Europe continue to postpone purchases in the face of financial and economic uncertainty." But, Gartner says, the "bigger issue for PCs in the home market is consumers temporarily, if not permanently, forgoing PC purchases in favor of media tablets."

The challenge of "emerging devices": Media tablet capabilities "are expected to become more PC-like in the coming years, luring consumers away from PCs and displacing a significant volume of PC shipments, especially mini-notebooks. Media tablets are rapidly finding favor with PC buyers who are attracted to their more-dedicated entertainment-driven features and their instant-on capability."

PCs will last longer as other devices help do their chores:As other devices like smart phones and tablets take on the chores of PCs, that will have an "important indirect impact" on PC sales. "As this happens, analysts foresee users extending the lifetimes of PCs because there will be less need to replace them as often," Gartner said.

Virtual desktops will play a bigger role in the work world: In the next few years, users that "adopt hosted virtual desktops to access their compute capabilities will do so predominantly by using refurbished PCs and thin clients. These alternative devices will displace new PC units, thereby reducing expected future desk-based shipment growth."

Worldwide this year, PC shipments will total 352.4 million units, a 14.3 percent increase from 2009, and next year, will reach  409 million units, Gartner estimates.