How Many iPads Can Apple Sell?

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Victor J. Blue / Bloomberg via Getty Images

People wait for the iPad outside of the Apple store on 5th Avenue in New York City on March 16, 2012.

Apple’s new iPad went on sale Friday morning, and as usual consumers lined up outside the tech giant’s retail stores to get their hands on the company’s latest gadget. Although Apple made only incremental improvements to the device — most notably doubling the screen resolution, boosting the processor speed, and adding 4G connectivity — that didn’t stop the faithful from turning out in cities around the world. So just how many iPads can Apple sell?

It’s a difficult question to answer because the iPad dominates an entirely new product category — one that barely existed before Apple launched the device less than two years ago. To get a sense of how rapidly iPad sales are growing, consider the following: Apple sold more iPads in the last quarter of 2011 — 15.4 million — than it did in the entire year of 2010. As of the end of 2011, Apple has sold a staggering 55 million iPads so far — amazing when you think that the product is less than two years old. On a year-to-year basis, iPad sales are growing by over 100%.

Obviously, that kind of super-steep sales growth cannot continue indefinitely. At some point, iPad sales growth will begin to  taper off, but there’s reason to believe that we’re nowhere near that inflection point, simply because the overall tablet market — which Apple dominates — is growing so rapidly. IHS iSuppli Market Research forecasts that global tablet shipments will exceed 275 million by 2015 — up from only 17.4 million in 2010.

To be sure, Apple will face increasingly vigorous competition, particularly from tablets running Google Android mobile operating system, but for now the iPad owns an estimated 60% to 70% of the tablet market. And Apple is moving preemptively confront its rivals — that’s why the company dropped the price for the iPad 2 to $399, which should spur even more sales.

(More: Apple Stock Tops $600 Day Before New iPad Release)

“All the momentum in the media tablet market is with Apple right now,” Rhoda Alexander, senior manager, tablet and monitor research for IHS, said in a statement when the firm’s forecast was released last summer. “The competition can’t seem to field a product with the right combination of hardware, marketing, applications and content to match up with the iPad.” Six months later, Alexander’s comments are still true.

Meanwhile, Apple literally cannot produce enough iPads to meet consumer demand, and there is a two to three week shipping delay for the devices. A recent poll by mobile advertising network InMobi found that nearly one-third of all mobile web users surveyed planned to buy an iPad 3. With that kind of intense consumer appetite, it’s no surprise that Apple shares recently topped $600 per share — a new record for the company — up a whopping 44% so far this year.

So how many iPads can Apple sell? Analysts at Canaccord Genuity forecast that the company could move 65.6 million units this year, alone. Of course,  predicting the future is a notoriously tricky business, but judging by how successful the device has been so far — and given how young the tablet market is — that estimate may wind up looking quaint.