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As iPad goes global, the birth of a new market?

By Kevin Voigt, CNN
  • iPad is released in nine overseas markets on Friday in Europe, Asia and North America
  • U.S. sales in the first month hit 1 million, beating market expectations
  • Global sales of iPad are expected to hit 6 million this year, according to IDC
  • Questions remain whether it will be a niche product or launch a new market

(CNN) -- As Apple's iPad is released in nine overseas markets on Friday, industry watchers wonder if they are seeing the birth of a new market or a geek niche product.

The iPad, which beat industry expectations by selling 1 million tablets in the first month of sales in the U.S., will be released Friday in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, Switzerland and the UK.

The international rollout will continue in July with iPads planned to be released in Austria, Belgium, Hong Kong, Ireland, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand and Singapore.

Apple won't release sales expectations in international markets, but market researcher IDC forecasts that the company will ship 6 million iPads by the end of the year.

The iPad is the latest in a run of new products, starting with the iPod portable music player in 2001 and the iPhone in 2007, which has helped Apple overtake Microsoft this week as the world's largest technology company by market value. At the close of markets in New York on Wednesday, Apple was worth $222 billion compared to Microsoft at $219 billion. (The world's biggest technology company by sales is South Korea's Samsung Electronics.)

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The iPad is unique, analysts say, because it is creating a new market segment in between mobile phones and computer laptops. How much this new segment becomes a "game changer" is still to be seen, analysts say, but it is generating excitement among a diverse set of industries, including application designers, book publishers and news media organizations.

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The question remains whether the iPad and similar computer tablet devices move from a "like to have" to "must have" device, says Benedict Evans, a UK-based analyst for Enders Analysis.

"In the 1980's AT&T commissioned a study on the potential for the mobile phone market in the U.S., and it predicted only be a few hundred thousand people would buy a mobile phone," Evans said. "Now you need to have a mobile phone. Will people need to have an iPad?"

"Apple has done a good job with the first iteration of the iPad and that's caused a lot of excitement in the market (for tablet computers)," said Susan Kevorkian, director of IDC's Digital Marketplace Group in the U.S. "But you have to remember that six months ago the hot topic was e-readers. And six months before that it was mobile Internet devices."

Still, analysts say the flexibility of iPads is attracting an impressive diversity of demographics, which bodes well for the growth of the industry. "Older people are using the iPad to do light email and Web surfing; for other people it's something they can quickly fire up to keep their young kids entertained ... so it's finding success on both ends of the age equation," Kevorkian said.

The popularity of iPads and similar devices may ultimately just cannibalize personal computer sales, analysts say. "There are a lot of people who have a PC when all they really want is e-mail and YouTube," Evans said.

IDC estimates the market for tablet computers will grow from 7.6 million units to 46 million units worldwide by 2014. By comparison, IDC predicts 398 million laptop computers will be shipped in 2014.

What will define the long-term success of iPad and other computer tablets is the applications on offer, analysts say. "The evolution of the app ecosystem will be very important in terms of sustaining demand for (computer) tablets," Kevorkian said.

While media companies salivate at the iPad as a digital alternative that best mimics the user experience of paper publications, there are few newspaper or magazine applications that have turned industry heads, Kevorkian said.

"There is a lot of potential for the content industry, especially publishing," Kevorkian said. "Still, e-readers have been around for 10 years and it's remarkable to me how little digital text delivery has changed in the last decade."

One market being bypassed so far in the iPad rollout is the world's largest, China. So far Apple has announced no plans to sell the product to a Chinese market outside of Hong Kong.

"China is not a very important market for Apple in terms of its global strategy," said Zhang Ying of Analysys International in Beijing. "If it put more resources and developed better incentive sales and marketing partners, it would have stronger growth in this market."