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Research firm sees explosion in Mac popularity, hints at iPod Touch potential

The Mac's resurgence will continue over the next several years, according to Gartner research, resulting in the platform's doubling its market share in the U.S. and Western Europe by 2011.

That prognostication led off Gartner's list of 10 key predictions for the tech industry the firm released yesterday. While crediting Apple's business model for much of the Mac's success, Gartner notes that "failures" of Apple's competitors also are playing a part. Here's what the company had to say:

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"By 2011, Apple will double its U.S. and Western Europe unit market share in computers. Apple's gains in computer market share reflect as much on the failures of the rest of the industry as on Apple's success. Apple is challenging its competitors with software integration that provides ease of use and flexibility; continuous and more frequent innovation in hardware and software; and an ecosystem that focuses on interoperability across multiple devices (such as iPod and iMac cross-selling)."

Gartner has figured out what veteran Mac users have known for years. The Mac's ease of use holds great appeal to people who just want a computer that does what it's supposed to do. That demographic includes most home users, which is where the Mac has made most of its gains.

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Gartner doesn't name names after citing the "failures of the rest of the industry," but it's obvious the primary guilty party is Microsoft. Dashing expectations after years of anticipation, the latest version of Windows – Vista -- has met resistance in its first year of release. Many PC vendors, including Dell, had to start offering XP as an option on new PCs.

But the Gartner statement hints at more than the PC industry's missteps; if you read between the lines, it's also an indictment of the PC business model. That would be the chaotic system in which one company makes the operating system (Microsoft) while many others build the hardware (Dell, HP, Lenovo, Acer, Toshiba, Sony). And that doesn't include all the third-party peripherals that may or may not work with your Windows PC.

Apple has long endured criticism for its vertical integration philosophy. "If only Apple would open up its hardware and software, it could compete and gain market share," they would opine.

Of course, Apple did allow clone making briefly in the mid-1990s, but instead of growing the Mac's market share the clone-makers gobbled up Apple's best customers. Steve Jobs killed that bad idea shortly after his return in 1997.

Now Gartner is lauding Apple's "software integration" and its "ecosystem that focuses on interoperability across multiple devices." Apple's ability to integrate its hardware, software and peripherals is what makes it all work so well. Somebody finally gets it.

One other prediction on Gartner's list also bodes exceptionally well for Apple. By 2012, the company predicts half of traveling workers "will leave their notebooks home in favour of other devices."

Gartner explains that workers will tire of notebooks' size and weight: "Vendors are developing solutions to address these concerns: new classes of Internet-centric pocketable devices at the sub-$400 level; and server and Web-based applications that can be accessed from anywhere."

Again, Gartner does not mention any names. Can you think of any devices that fit the criteria? Name begins with an "i"? Yep, the iPhone fits the bill perfectly, right down to its $399 price tag. But the $299 iPod Touch, particularly with its newfound software capabilities (mail, maps, weather, notes and stocks), may fit the bill even better.

Apple knows it and is already poised to exploit it. CFO Peter Oppenheimer referred to the iPod Touch as "an entirely new type of iPod" in his comments during Apple's earnings conference call last week. "This new iPod has the potential to grow the iPod from being just a music and video player into being the first mainstream WiFi mobile platform running all kinds of mobile applications."

While other companies surely will be competing in this space, Apple is the best equipped to make it work as people will expect it to work; its expertise in hardware-software integration will prove an immense advantage here. In a few years, the iPod Touch, along with the iPhone, could completely dominate this sector.

Just FYI, AAPL closed at $133.75 today.

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