Why the MacBook Air will be the iMac of notebooks

Apple’s iMac (s aapl) occupies a prized place in a fast-growing segment of the overall desktop PC market, the all-in-ones, that few others can approach. That’s how Apple can continue to show growth in an area where sales are slowing for other competitors, and it managed that advantage by being there early. Like the iMac before it, the MacBook Air is Apple’s next perfectly placed and timed attack on the competition.

Doing it before it was cool

The iMac was an all-in-one long before the form factor was popular, although it arrived much later than its own predecessor, the original Macintosh computer. Still, at the time the iMac arrived, the competition was all about separate towers and monitors. All-in-ones had trade-offs that seemed considerable at the time, including fewer customization options and no opportunity to really get into the high-performance range of personal computing.

Fast-forward to today, 14 years after the introduction of the first iMac, and it is the computer with the lion’s share of the hottest growth area in desktop computing. According to DisplaySearch, as reported by Bloomberg on Wednesday, the iMac accounts for 32.9 percent of the all-in-one desktop market, which itself grew 39 percent over the course of 2011 to 14.5 million shipments worldwide. DisplaySearch believes that the market will reach 23.3 million units by 2014, and Apple looks likely to lead the pack, since its next-closest competitor is Lenovo, with 22.7 percent of all-in-one sales.

Early investment pays later dividends

Apple doesn’t always strike a vein when it comes to early, unusual designs for its computers. The G4 Cube is a prime example. But that doesn’t mean they don’t bear fruit. The Cube formed the groundwork for the Mac mini, which succeeds as an HTPC and an inexpensive Mac desktop option. Likewise, the early MacBook Air, which was expensive, somewhat underpowered and mostly admired from afar, paved the way for the current generation of sleek, fast, awesome general-use machines.

Apple worked out its ultraportable teething issues early, while competitors either looked on in disbelief that anyone would want such a device (its downsides vs. traditional notebooks were similar to the iMac’s flaws regarding user customization and repairs) or offered even more half-baked attempts at competing, like Dell’s Adamo.(s dell) The first iteration of the MacBook Air meant Apple was ready to come back cheaper, faster and stronger.

Playing catch-up

Now Intel (s intc) is prompting other notebook manufacturers to jump in late and try to capitalize on the demand for ultraportables. CES pitches are littered with the term, and it seems like every PC maker is planning an Air-like notebook for release in the near term. But the iMac’s doppelgängers haven’t managed to dethrone it, and I highly doubt we will see the notebook market behave very differently.

With both the iMac and the MacBook Air, Apple managed to successfully skate to where the puck’s going to be, and in doing so it has put itself at the fore of growth areas in overall markets (desktop and notebook PCs) that are otherwise sluggish. For users, that means both the iMac and the Air will be among Apple’s most exciting products to watch in 2012 and beyond.