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Sat 5 Jun 2010 04:00 AM

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Apple tops the tree

The buzz around the iPad has helped propel Apple past Microsoft to become the world's most valuable technology stock.

Apple tops the tree
Jake Lee from Essex celebrates after becoming the first person to buy the iPad from an Apple store in central London.
Apple tops the tree
Jobs is expected to reveal a new iPhone this month during an annual developers’ conference.

Apple edges out Microsoft as the iPad goes global. By Matt Cowan and Marie Mawad.

Fans mobbed apple inc stores in Europe and Asia as the iPad went on sale outside the United States on May 28, with some shoppers queuing all night to buy one of the coveted tablet computers.

The device, a little smaller than a regular notebook computer and with an open, colour touchscreen, is designed for surfing the web, watching movies and reading, and has been hailed by the publishing industry as a potential life-saver.

The buzz around the iPad helped propel Apple past Microsoft to become the world's most valuable technology stock, marking a remarkable turnaround of a company that nearly went out of business in the 1990s.

It was a banner week for Apple which, at the close of trading on May 26, stole Microsoft's crown with a market value of nearly $223bn, compared with about $219bn for Microsoft.

The iPad's debut sets the stage for Apple to possibly unveil the latest version of its iPhone. Chief executive Steve Jobs - keeping up a hectic public schedule after undergoing a liver transplant last year - is expected to reveal a new iPhone with multi-tasking features on June 7 during an annual developers' conference.

Apple sold a million iPads in the US in the first month after its April 3 debut, exceeding the most bullish pre-launch estimates. Demand was so heavy that the company delayed the international launch.

RBC Capital Markets estimated iPad's total shipments will reach 8.13 million units worldwide by the end of the year - which would translate into at least $4bn of revenue.

"I wanted to touch it as soon as possible. I felt real excitement when it was finally in my hands," said Takechiyo Yamanaka, nineteen, who had camped out in front of Tokyo's flagship Apple store just to be the first in line.

"It's a bit of a gut decision, an emotional decision, because it's not really rationally justifiable," said Anna Kistner as she emerged from the Apple store in Munich, Germany with two iPads. "It's  indeed a lot of money."

The iPad is now on sale in Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Britain, Japan, Australia and Canada.

Prices for the cheapest, Wi-Fi-only version range from $499 in the United States to the equivalent of $617 in Britain.

Apple now gets almost three-fifths of its revenue outside the United States, and it is counting on its base of fans who already own an iPod, iPhone or Mac to add the iPad to their collection as rivals line up with their own tablets. Analysts said the muted stock reaction to the launch came after a build-up of anticipation ahead of the international rollout, which will be followed in July with launches in about another nine countries, including Hong Kong and Singapore.

The day of the launch, Bank of America-Merrill Lynch raised its price target on Apple to $325 on hopes of better-than-expected sales of the iPhone and the iPad, plus better margins on the internet tablet than Wall Street is expecting.

Some analysts highlight concerns that Apple, which contracts out the production of the device and depends on numerous parts suppliers, may have trouble satisfying the surge in demand, driving buyers elsewhere. Dell's Streak tablet computer will go on sale next month in Britain. Sony Corporation and Hewlett-Packard also have tablets in the works.The iPad - like other tablets - may rely on a greater proportion of novel components that are not commoditised, potentially making a ramp-up of production more difficult, analysts say.

But "Apple has traditionally been pretty good about overcoming these constraints in time," said Oppenheimer's Yair Reiner.

"The question is, will there be a point where it will lose sales? For that to happen, companies with have to come up with products that are comparable."

Just ask Pascal Lordon, among the first in line at the flagship Apple store beneath the Louvre in Paris. He already has all Apple's products and described himself as a big fan.

"The iPhone created a new need, but the screen is small. The iPad is more comfortable; it has a real screen," said the 51-year-old, who works in video editing.

Other consumers were less manic about the Apple brand.

"I'm not going to buy the iPad now as it's expensive. And I'm a Sony fan," said Kengo Nakajima, a nineteen-year-old college student who waited in line with his friend Yamanaka at the Apple store in Tokyo's trendy Ginza shopping district.

Amazon, whose Kindle e-book reader is seen as a rival to the iPad, said it would be offering its Kindle iPad application in all countries where the iPad was now on sale.

Analysts at research firm Informa Telecoms & Media believe most iPad sales would be of Wi-Fi only models, citing the limited case for outdoor usage, higher prices for 3G models and the ability to tether the iPad to a mobile phone as reasons.

At London's Apple store, a circus-like atmosphere prevailed.

"Jake! Jake! Jake!" store staff chanted as Jake Lee, a seventeen year-old student who had waited 20 hours, entered.

British actor and technophile Stephen Fry said Apple had proved the sceptics wrong. "Whenever Apple comes up with a new product, the initial response... is always negative, because no one can quite believe it can happen again," he told Reuters.

Apple has yet to announce a launch date for mainland China, which could prove a much more difficult market to crack for the Cupertino, California-based company. Bootleg versions of the gadget are being snapped up online and in retail malls in the piracy-prone country.

Retailer Best Buy said it was restricting sales at its two British outlets to one iPad per household.

Michito Kimura, a senior analyst at IDC Japan, said the test would come after the honeymoon period.

"The real game will start after ‘core users' have the devices. I imagine a price cut may be necessary before the Christmas holiday season to stimulate demand."

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