Apple grows Mac sales by 18% on the back of the MacBook Air

Sells 4.4M Macs in the face of continued declines in the PC industry overall; sets June quarter sales record

Apple on Tuesday said it sold 4.4 million Macs in the June quarter, the most ever for that three-month stretch, with a year-over-year growth rate the rest of the personal computer industry hasn't seen since early 2010.

The Cupertino, Calif. company sold 18% more Macs in the quarter than the same period the year before, with revenue from its oldest line accounting for 15% of the company's total sales of $37.4 billion.

"I was pleasantly surprised by the Mac numbers," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research. "The rumors of the death of the personal computer are, of course, highly exaggerated."

"No, I'm not surprised," countered Carolina Milanesi, chief of research and head of U.S. business for Kantar WorldPanel Comtech, when asked for her reaction. "The PC business is almost all mid- and low-end, and that's not where Apple plays, so they'll continue to outperform."

Apple's Mac sales came in significantly higher than the forecasts of every Wall Street analyst polled last week by Fortune. The company beat the 3.9 million average of nearly three-dozen analysts by 12%; none of the 34 financial experts surveyed by Fortune had placed a bet higher than what Apple recorded.

"We had a record June quarter for the Mac, and demand has been very strong for our portables in particular," CEO Tim Cook boasted during the Tuesday earnings call.

And Apple's chief financial officer, Luca Maestri, trumpeted the fact that Apple has beaten the PC industry average in 32 of the last 33 quarters. The one quarter in the last eight years that Apple failed to match or beat the average was Q4 2012, when a production fiasco left it without iMacs to sell for several months.

For the June quarter, research firm IDC said global shipments of all PCs -- the bulk of them running Microsoft's Windows -- fell 2%; rival Gartner pegged shipments as flat compared to the year before.

Van Baker of Gartner attributed the increase in sales to the MacBook Air, Apple's lightest-weight and thinnest notebook.

"The MacBook Air is still a very strong product and people like it a lot," said Baker. "It puts them in a good position for continued growth."

Both Gottheil and Baker believe that Apple benefited from the minor rebound in the overall PC business last quarter, but for different reasons. Gottheil said that some consumers, faced with an aging Windows computer -- one likely bought before the global recession of 2008-2009 -- picked a Mac as a replacement. But Baker saw a different mechanism and motivation at work.

"Some of these [Macs], I think, went to people who had bought a tablet thinking that it would be a replacement for their PC," said Baker. "But then those consumers said, 'Tablet are nice and I like tablets, but a notebook is still a better idea.' In the developed economies, that's a dynamic that is operating."

All three analysts pointed out the price cuts Apple instituted in April on the MacBook Air line. Apple dropped prices of the four stock models by $100, and for the first time offered a sub-$900 Air, selling the 11-in. notebook equipped with 128GB of storage space for $899 to consumers, $849 to college students and parents of students.

"The MacBook Air is a more attractive choice with those price cuts, and it's a pretty robust notebook," said Gottheil.

The ASP, or average selling price, of the Mac line decreased 7% quarter-over-quarter, falling from $1,344 to $1,255, the difference almost equal to the $100 price cut on the MacBook Air. The June quarter's ASP was down 4% year-over-year.

When graphed over a six-year stretch, however, the Mac's ASP looks very stable, showing that Apple has been able to sustain growth while not abandoning its premium brand strategy and engaging in deeply disruptive price wars.

The quarter was the second consecutive that Apple set sales records, and was the third straight that showed year-over-year gains. Apple's sales contraction lasted four quarters -- Q4 2012 through Q3 2013 -- a much shorter length of time than the market overall, which by IDC's estimate has had a nine-quarter run of declines.

Even so, the Mac continued to be a bit player on the personal computer scene. If IDC's June quarter estimate of 74.4 million personal computers was accurate, the Mac accounted for just 5.3% of the total.

Nearly all the rest shipped last quarter were powered by Windows. Microsoft also conducted its June quarter earnings call today, and reported revenue of $23.4 billion, an 18% increase, the growth fueled by strong sales of cloud-based products and services to enterprises.

Apple reported $37.4 billion in revenue, 5% more than the same quarter in 2013 and a record for the company in the April-June period. Cook called out the Mac and iPhone, as well as the iTunes ecosystem, as the drivers for the quarter.

Comparing the two companies is difficult, as they have such divergent business models. But Baker took a stab at it, albeit in a narrowly-focused fashion.

Microsoft made a mistake, Baker said, in comparing its hybrid tablet/notebook Surface Pro 3 to a MacBook Air when the Redmond, Wash. company unveiled its latest 2-in-1 in May. "The MacBook Air is a very, very good product, and it kicks the Surface Pro 3's butt," Baker said.

Mac ASPs
The Mac's ASP (average selling price) dropped by 4% year-over-year, but in the big picture, Apple has stuck to its to high-end niche with remarkably stable prices. (Data: Apple.)

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at  @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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