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Tablets to outsell computers in 3 years, Apple CEO says

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March 7, 2012: Apple's senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller stands in front of an old iPad, left, and new iPad, right, during an Apple event in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

The market for tablet computers is set to explode, even surpassing the PC market itself, Apple CEO Tim Cook said on Monday.

“The tablet market will eventually surpass the PC market … it’s just a question of when,” Cook said in a conference call announcing Apple’s plans to issue dividends and initiate a stock buyback with its massive $97 billion cash balance.

The company’s vast war chest was built largely off sales of hugely successful gadgets such as the iPad; Cook said Apple has sold 55 million to date, and sales of the new iPad were through the roof in the first weekend.

“We had a record weekend, and we’re thrilled with it,” Cook said. But sales today are just the tip of the iceberg.

“Gartner estimates that the tablet market will be 325 million units by 2015,” Cook noted.

It might not even take that long.

According to Ross Rubin, executive director and principal analyst for market research firm NPD Connected Intelligence, that switch over could happen as early as this year.

“If their market size change rates continue on pace, we've seen evidence that tablet sales are on track to surpass notebook sales in the U.S. in the near future, perhaps this year,” he told FoxNews.com.

Apple isn’t alone in anticipating tablet growth: Microsoft has its sights set on those little rectangles of glass and silicon as well. The forthcoming Windows 8 operating system is in many ways optimized for tablets -- arguably to the detriment of the traditional desktop or laptop.

But the victory of the tablet computer isn’t so cut and dried.

A second report by Gartner released March 8 notes that worldwide PC shipments are expected to rise 4.4 percent in 2012, to a total of 368 million units, and to reach more than 400 million by 2013. These numbers are weaker than expected, thanks to tablets, but still bigger than projected tablet sales.

“PC shipments will remain weak in 2012, as the PC market plays catch up in bringing a new level of innovation that consumers want to see in devices they purchase,” said Ranjit Atwal, research director at Gartner. “The real question is whether Windows 8 and ultrabooks will create the compelling offering that gets the earlier adopter of devices excited about PCs again.”

A Microsoft representative declined to respond to Cook’s comments, pointing instead to a blog post by Frank X. Shaw, a Microsoft vice president. Titled "Where the PC is headed," the post offers the company’s perspective on tablets.

And the Windows vision of the future embraces several devices rather than just tablets.

“One should take any reports of the death of the PC with a rather large grain of salt,” Shaw wrote.

“While it’s fun for the digerati to pronounce things dead, and declare we’re post-PC, we think it’s far more accurate to say that the 30-year-old PC isn’t even middle aged yet, and about to take up snowboarding.”

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