The iPad isn’t a PC — so let’s not count it that way

NPD DisplaySearch released a report on the worldwide PC market Thursday, and Apple is at the top of the heap. How can that be? Because NPD is choosing to tally “mobile PC” sales, and for them, that means iPads get thrown in along with laptops. Apple(s AAPL) doesn’t count iPads as laptops when they sell them or when they account for them to shareholders. And we don’t use them the same way. So why are we throwing them in the same basket?

When NPD says that Apple leads mobile PC makers with 23.4 million units sold worldwide during 2011’s Q4 — with the largest share of the market at 26.6 percent — that certainly sounds impressive. Especially when you know that Apple does not typically crack the top 5 in global PC sales.

But it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for NPD to count them that way when the next statement in the report is this:

Nearly 80% of Apple’s mobile PC shipments were iPads, more than 18.7 million shipped in the quarter, up 156% Y/Y, and 48.4 million units for the year, up 183% Y/Y.

It’s the iPad that’s boosting that number. So why not just talk about iPads by themselves? NPD does get to that later on in the report, noting that Apple had a 59.1 percent share of the tablet market at Q4’s end, with 18.7 million iPads sold. (It’s worth noting that Apple reported 15.7 million iPads sold during that same period.)

So why give Apple’s PCs a boost? Make no mistake — Apple is doing pretty well selling actual PCs, considering where they’ve come from. Their most recent quarterly results showed 5.2 million sold during the last three months of 2011, the most Macs Apple has ever sold in a single quarter. (Note that that’s mostly MacBooks, which are true mobile PCs.) And the Mac is one of the only brands with real sales momentum — last month IDC called the last quarter of 2011 “the second-worst year in history” for the U.S. PC market, and Mac sales were the only bright spot, with 18 percent growth for the quarter.

NPD looks at tablets and laptops and says “they both have operating systems that support third-party apps and similar component packages,” so they should be counted the same. And they say their view is a little more forward-looking. The firm is thinking more about what happens when Windows 8 arrives on ARM chips.

“These artifical categories we created … they’re kind of decaying,” said NPD DisplaySearch senior analyst Richard Shim. “Windows 8 on ARM — what is that? Is that a PC or not a PC? We are looking a little bit forward.” While iPads right now make the case a little stronger that they’re different devices from PCs, he said, “as you look out further and see these two devices converging, you see that they’re kind of the same device.”

The iPad, though, is its own business for Apple, and one that is doing a pretty great job attracting customers by not being a PC. People are choosing them for a variety of reasons: they boot up faster, they travel easier in a bag or purse, you can get what you need done in apps with a few swipes or taps. When it’s time to get actual work done, sure, some people may pull out a wireless keyboard to attach to their iPad. But I would be willing to bet most of us wait until we get to a laptop (or desktop even) to write stories, reports, crunch numbers, edit photos or videos or design something, even if the components are similar.

Apple doesn’t think the iPad is a mobile PC either. CEO Tim Cook has been very open about the fact that he expects there to eventually be some cannibalization of Macs due to the iPad, though it may already be happening to Windows PCs. He does not, however, see the iPad completely erasing the PC industry. “I don’t subscribe to that” line of thinking, he told investors last week. And so far, he said, Mac sales being replaced by iPad sales has been minimal. The company’s sales results reflect that. If iPad sales and Mac sales are going up at the same time, that does say that the use case is just not the same.