Mac sales tumble 12% in second-biggest downturn since '07

Keeping-old-computers-longer problem snares Apple, says analyst

Apple yesterday said it sold 4 million Macs in the March quarter, a 12% decline from the same period the year before, and a larger contraction than for the personal computer business as a whole.

The year-over-year downturn in Mac sales was the second straight down quarter, and excepting a brutal 22% drop at the end of 2012, the largest since Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007.

Analysts at IDC and Gartner earlier this month pegged the continued contraction of the PC industry at 11.5% and 9.6%, respectively. Both also missed the actual Mac number for the quarter in their forecasts for Apple, overestimating by 11% to 13%: IDC had tapped shipments at 4.5 million, while Gartner said it was 4.6 million.

Apple had been on an extended streak of besting the PC average, with sometimes-impressive gains during the four-years-and-counting slump of the overall market. But the March quarter's results put an end to the years-long run, which the Cupertino, Calif. company often touted.

Neither CEO Tim Cook or CFO Luca Maestri mentioned the end of the streak in Tuesday's earnings call with Wall Street.

"It was a challenging quarter for personal computer sales across the industry," said Maestri, stating the obvious.

Cook said that Mac sales "met our sell-in expectations" and added that he remained optimistic about Apple's computer business, a sentiment a CEO is duty-bound to share. "We're confident in our Mac business and our ability to continue to innovate and gain share in that area," Cook said.

But Mac-generated revenue for the quarter was $5.1 billion, 9% lower than the same period in 2015, and the smallest amount recorded for the line in almost three years.

Macs accounted for 10.1% of Apple's total revenue of $50.1 billion, but the computer group slipped to No. 3 on the company's list, behind -- by a country mile -- the iPhone (accounting for 65% of all revenue) and, for the first time, the relatively new Services category, which contributed 11.8% of all incoming dollars.

"There's no indication that people are giving up their Macs to go to Windows, or that new entrants are choosing Windows or Chromebooks rather than Macs," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, in a Wednesday interview.

But the slide in Mac sales does show something, Gottheil argued. "The keeping-your-older-PC-longer problem caught up with Apple, too," he said, referring to, as analysts see it, the heart of the slump in personal computer shipments: Consumers are simply not upgrading to new systems at the rate they once did, either holding onto their machines for years longer or simply not bothering at all.

Gottheil pointed to the SSD (solid-state drive) storage now used by all Mac notebooks as a prime culprit, pointing out that SSDs are more reliable than the old-style, platter-based hard disk drives, as well as their much faster speeds in moving data, especially at boot. "People think, 'I've arrived at a lot more than just good enough,'" said Gottheil. "A new Mac has to be a whole lot better to take the step up [to a new system]."

And there, Apple has failed by largely ignoring the Mac -- Gottheil cited the line's lack of innovation on both hardware and the OS X operating system -- and confusing customers with overlap between models, particularly the MacBook and the MacBook Air.

He criticized Apple's refusal to add a touch-based screen to the Mac line, and the omission of the Siri digital assistant in OS X.

"Macs are increasingly challenged by Microsoft and its OEMs [original equipment manufacturers," Gottheil asserted. With its multi-modalities, the conversations [bots], the touch and the stylus, Microsoft is making a case that Windows 10 is a more advanced operating system than OS X. And the PC OEMs felt a breath of fear, and their design work is now kick-ass."

Mac sales growth Data: Apple

Mac sales fell by 12% in the March quarter compared to the same period in 2015, making it the second straight quarter of declines.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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