Apple's Mac ends up in tablet cannibal pot, too

Mac sales mimicked the PC industry contraction in 2012-2013; refutes theory that Windows 8 caused PC slump

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It's significant, for instance, that Apple CEO Tim Cook has publicly embraced cannibalization, but that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has not.

"I see cannibalization as a huge opportunity for us," Cook said in January 2013. "Our base philosophy is to never fear cannibalization. If we do, somebody else will just cannibalize it. We know that iPad will cannibalize some Macs."

That doesn't mean Apple has to welcome future cannibalization. Like the PC industry in general, Mac sales may be destined for further contraction. Many analysts believe that annual global PC sales will drop to 300 million, where they will remain, perhaps for years. If the same happened to the Mac, sales would stabilize at between 15 and 16 million each year.

Or even lower: While Windows PCs will be able to count on corporations for continued sales, Macs rely mostly on consumers, who have spurned new systems more emphatically than businesses.

But Cook has said Apple has no intention of abandoning the Mac. "I don't think this [personal computer] market is a dead market or a bad market by any means," said Cook in April 2013. "I think it has a lot of life to it."

Perhaps. But a no-growth Mac division's influence within the company would be increasingly smaller as other product lines -- the iPhone and iPad -- continue to grow their sales. In the last four quarters for which Apple has reported revenue, the Mac accounted for less than 13% of the company's total, and in late 2012 the Mac's share was within a whisker of single digits, which would be an historic milestone.

If the Mac becomes a puny appendage, it could be at long-term risk or even become the target of investors who see little point in keeping it when its revenue is a figurative drop in the bucket.

Some experts have scoffed at any idea that the Mac's future is anything but bright, even as it cedes sales to tablets. "Looking at these devices as investments strengthens the case for a Mac," said Ben Bajarin of Creative Strategies last October, referring to the need for personal computers in the future, albeit fewer than before.

Yet, for all Cook's pledge to keep the Mac relevant, it may be Apple itself that accelerates the downturn of its personal computers if, as many expect, Apple enhances the iPad's productivity skill set with larger displays that infringe on notebook territory.

Apple doesn't have to panic, as many PC OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) seem to be doing -- casting about for ways to reinvigorate their wares with new form factors, some of them downright odd, and alternate operating systems, like the made-for-mobile Android -- because the Mac is such a small part of its bottom line.

But Apple, like every other computer maker, faces the same decision: Accept the below-or-near-zero-growth that seems inevitable for the foreseeable future, or get out of the business.

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.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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