U.S. Mac shipments shrink 56X more than industry average

IDC estimates Mac Q3 shipments fell 11.2% year-over-year; PC average was just -0.2%

Mac shipments in the U.S. during the third quarter fell at a dramatically steeper rate than that of sales of other PCs, including those powered by Microsoft's Windows, IDC said Wednesday.

According to the research firm, Apple's personal computer shipments in the United States slumped 11.2% year-over-year to 1.9 million machines. The PC business as a whole contracted just 0.2% as sales picked up more momentum than had been expected, with all four of the remaining top 5 -- HP, Dell, Lenovo and Toshiba -- posting positive growth numbers for the quarter.

Apple's decline was 56 times that of the industry average.

Why the plummet in growth?

"Mac unit sales are correlated to product launches, so when Apple ships a new [Mac], sales zoom up," said Rajani Singh, an IDC analyst, in an interview Thursday. And when Apple doesn't, sales take a dive.

Especially when compared to a quarter like the third of 2012. Apple sold its second-highest number of Macs ever during the span that ended Sept. 30, 2012, largely on the back of the Retina-equipped 13-in. MacBook Pro notebook, which debuted in June 2012.

In 2013, Apple had no comparable new system to offer consumers. Instead, it refreshed the MacBook Air, the lighter machine that's typically outsold by the MacBook Pro, with Intel's Core processor, code named "Haswell."

Customers and pundits had hoped that Apple would instead add a higher-resolution display, what Apple dubs "Retina," to the Air.

Apple also revamped its all-in-one iMac desktop line during the quarter, but did so Sept. 24, just days before the quarter ended.

Gartner, IDC's rival, also estimated U.S. Mac sales as lower than last year, although its numbers were wildly different. Gartner said Mac shipments were down 2.3% to 2.2 million, compared to a U.S. industry average increase of 3.5%. The only thing the pair of researchers agreed on was that Apple was the only one of the top 5 computer makers to lose ground in the third quarter.

Apple keeps selling Macs, but the personal computer, once its largest revenue generator, has been relegated to almost an afterthought, said Singh. "Apple has really moved from a personal computer-making company to a phone-making company," Singh said. She pointed out that in the second quarter of this year, 51% of the company's revenue was produced by the iPhone, compared to just 18% by the Mac.

Neither IDC or Gartner publish shipment estimates for Apple worldwide. But other analysts have placed similar downbeat bets for the quarter globally.

In a recent note to clients, Brian White of Cantor Fitzgerald & Co. forecast an 18.4% decline in Mac unit sales year-over-year. Meanwhile, another Wall Street analyst, Brian Marshall of ISI Group, said worldwide Mac sales would contract by 16.3% in the third quarter.

Singh said she expected Apple would release new stand-alone displays and MacBook Pro models this quarter. Neither have been refreshed for some time: Apple last updated its display line in September 2011, and its MacBook Pro in February 2013.

If, as some analysts and multiple Apple-centric blogs have posited, Apple releases new MacBook Pros this month to incorporate the Intel Haswell processors, sales in the fourth quarter, usually Apple's strongest, could get a bump.

Also at play for Apple, as with all personal computer makers, is the cannibalization, especially of lower-end notebooks, by sales of tablets. There Apple is in an enviable position, as it also deals out the iPad, and is thus better able than most OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) to at least keep the dollars rather than see them flee to a competitor.

CEO Tim Cook has repeatedly embraced cannibalization for that reason.

"I see cannibalization as a huge opportunity for us," Cook said in January when reporting 2012's fourth quarter results. "Our base philosophy is to never fear cannibalization. If we do, somebody else will just cannibalize it, and so we never fear it. We know that iPad will cannibalize some Macs, [so] that doesn't worry us."

"Apple's Mac shipments and revenues have been going down and down each quarter," said Singh, reflecting on the cannibalization impact by the iPad on Macs sales.

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Mac sales have stagnated over the last four quarters as Apple's personal computers have also been hit by the transition to tablets. (Data: Apple.)

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

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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