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The Yay! and Uh-Oh Reasons for Slowing Mac Sales

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Nov 21, 2013 5:00 AM PT

There's been some concern over the last year or so over slowing Mac sales. Instead of selling at wildly better rates than the constricting PC industry, Macs have been languishing.

The Yay! and Uh-Oh Reasons for Slowing Mac Sales

Of course, at the same time iPad and iPhone sales have been skyrocketing, so it's not hard to point a finger at iPads as a reason. Makes sense. iPads hold a heckuva lot of computing power inside their one-piece slab, and plenty of people would rather buy a new iPad than a new Mac.

In a report earlier this week, Needham analyst Charlie Wolf took a stab at explaining why Apple's Mac sales have "fallen back to earth." Fortune's Philip Elmer-Dewitt, a long-time Apple-following journalist, brought Wolf's financial analysis to the masses.

Of course, I have to pile on. Here's why: I think Wolf missed the most obvious reasons. Not that his reasons are exactly wrong -- just that I believe there's more here than meets the eye.

Mac Outpacing Industry

While the Mac is still doing relatively better than the beleaguered PC industry, the bigger question seems to be this: Why is the Mac, which used to outgrow the industry by 20-30 percent, now shrinking at nearly the same rate. As reported by Elmer-Dewitt, Wolf offers a pair of theories.

The first is that the so-called halo effect is fading -- that's the idea is that someone would buy an iPhone or iPad, get all excited about Apple's products, and buy a Mac too. That has definitely happened and still does, but maybe it's happening less often. Wolf speculates that some customers who were going to buy a Mac ended up buying an iPad instead.

OK, from my perspective, this is all agreeable enough. Certainly possible. We all know people who would be better served with an iPad than with a Mac or a PC.

The second reason, according to Wolf, is a growing price differential. Over the years, the prices of Macs have fallen barely at all, while the prices of PCs have dropped significantly. So, the relative price of a Mac has become more expensive compared to the relative price of a PC.

Again, from my perspective, true enough.

Both of these explanations are likely factors -- as is the fact that so many iPhone and iPad owners now turn to their mobile devices for many things they used to do on a Mac or PC. However, I think the slowdown is also affected by Apple's legendary quality -- Wahoo! -- and by Apple's current innovation choices. Uh oh.

Apple Quality Bites Apple on the Backside

There's a problem in every sector of manufacturing: If you build a fantastically reliable product, your customers will have longer upgrade cycles. Automobile manufacturers face this challenge -- to make a high-quality car -- but they clearly don't have much incentive to make cars that purr for 200,000 miles. Hence, some parts are engineered to last just comfortably past the warranty stage before needing service or replacement. It's a no-win situation, and Apple is right in the thick of it.

Because Apple's Macs are so well built, they last a long time. Some of reasons to buy a new Mac used to involve getting new features and a fresh operating system -- as with PCs. However, Apple's introduction of new features has slowed as the form and function of a Mac has been refined.

The multitouch trackpad does it thing, just like the previous generation. The iSight camera is as good as it needs to be. The screens are bright and vivid. The weight of MacBooks makes them all packable enough.

At the same time, computing needs haven't suddenly exploded so that we need massive new processors to have a good experience. I can use one of my 5-year-old MacBooks to very good effect even today. In fact, I have just such a MacBook that tools around the household and gets used by family and guests. Still going strong.

When my needs (and desire) for a new MacBook arise for work, I'll upgrade, and my current MacBook Pro will enter the household -- or go to a friend or family member in particular need. Still in action.

Add in the fact that Apple has made upgrading the OS cheaper, to the point that it's now free with OS X Mavericks. Apple consumers can extend the life of their Macs through software enhancements, which not only make them better Apple users, but also less frequent Mac buyers.

This isn't bad. In fact, I think it makes for smarter, more loyal customers overall. Yet it definitely can slow the purchase cycle of Macs, which affects the fancy charts. The bottom line is that if my Mac systems actually failed -- or my computing processing needs skyrocketed -- I would upgrade more quickly. As it is, for the vast majority of computing work, older-generation processors have plenty of oomph to get the job done.

So, quality of product reduces pressure to upgrade.

What About Desire?

Desire is a key mover of consumer action. Is Apple faltering when it comes to creating desire? With its Mac line, I have to say yes. While the MacBook Pro has gotten thinner and lighter and comes with better battery life -- along with wicked-sharp Retina displays -- the overall form factor remains similar to previous generations.

This is a lot like marrying a woman who never changes her hairstyle. Sure, you still love her, right, but hey, some surprising new color or curls can go along way to sparking a whole kind of interest. Sure, Apple has found a solid and sexy style, but even the partners of the most beautiful people on Earth stop having gaga eyes as familiarity increases.

Apple's MacBook line, including the MacBook Airs, are intimately familiar.

It gets worse, though. In previous years, Apple would extend its product development cycle by throwing on a new paint job and set of tires, giving this year's model a slightly new look -- think new iPod colors, a white iPhone, a new black MacBook. It's not that Apple doesn't still work the paint-job angles. Case in point? The gold iPhone 5s.

However Apple has skipped this important element of desire for the new with its iMac, MacBook and Mac mini line. Instead, Apple refined these Macs into best-of-breed computers: super thin, super bright, super usable. (The wild new Mac Pro is the sole exception.)

Stepping Forward and Back

While the world is appreciating laptops more than ever, the MacBook line represents a new set of Macs perfect for on-the-go enthusiasts -- but not so impressive for regular consumers. Why? Thinner is great, but we don't have to lug our MacBooks all over the place. Saving a pound to go from the desk to couch to bed and back again isn't a big deal.

What is a big deal? Non-upgradable storage. The 400 GB of data stored on a user's current Mac won't fit into a 128-GB MacBook Air or MacBook Pro. Upgrade to a 256-GB flash-based model instead? Keep doing the math. It doesn't work out.

How about not keeping your movies on your internal storage and instead keeping them on thumb drives or external drives? Doable -- but irritating. If you have decent, consistent Internet service, you can stream or re-download your Apple-purchased movies and TV shows, so that can shave some storage weight.

What about photos of your family? Of landscapes? What about the video you shoot? Suddenly a family vacation takes up multiple gigabytes of storage -- and you love having it. You make some movies, creating more need for more space.

My personal iPhoto library alone is hanging around 80 GB, and I delete a lot of photos and videos. I don't want to mess around trying to store my iPhoto library on an external hard drive. So cramming this wonderful digital life that Apple helped create into a new MacBook form factor? Nah. Not going to happen. So when am I going to upgrade? When I absolutely have to. I'll pay for it, I'm sure -- just not right now.

MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at

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