Mac sales jump 19 per cent when compared to terrible Q4 2012

Apple squeaked out a 1 per cent gain for all 2013 as the PC business plunged 10 per cent

Mac sales jumped 19 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2013 over the year before, the first uptick in more than a year, according to Apple.

For the quarter ending Decmber 31, Apple sold 4.8 million Macs compared to about 4.1 million during the same period of 2012.

"We were ... very pleased to have generated such strong results for our Mac products, particularly given IDC's most recently published estimate of a 6 per cent year-over-year contraction in worldwide personal computer sales," said Peter Oppenheimer, Apple's chief financial officer, during the company's earnings call with Wall Street.

While the number was impressive for Apple - it was the Mac's fourth-best quarter ever and the first to show growth since the third quarter of 2012 - what Oppenheimer failed to mention was that the 19 6 per cent increase was largely artificial.

Apple sold 4.8 million Macs worldwide in the December 2013 quarter, the second straight month of increasing sales after nearly a year of slumping sales. (Data: Apple.)

The quarter to which Oppenheimer compared Mac sales -- the fourth of 2012 -- had been weak because Apple botched the introduction and rollout of that year's refreshed iMacs, which were announced in October but weren't ready to ship for weeks. Apple later quantified the loss in iMac sales in the fourth quarter of 2012 at around 700,000 systems, meaning that if it had been able to sell that number then, the fourth quarter of 2013 would have been flat, not up 19 6 per cent.

Even so, Apple trumpeted sales, particularly of the iMac and MacBook Air, and Oppenheimer touted the fact that the Mac had gained global market share in 30 of the last 31 quarters.

While Mac sales increased last quarter, the overall PC industry continued to shrink. IDC estimated the worldwide contraction at 6 per cent while rival research firm Gartner pegged it down7 per cent. But Apple remained off both companies' top-five lists, with the 4.8 million Macs about 600,000 shy of fifth-place Asus by Gartner's count and equal to a third of leader Lenovo's total for the quarter.

If Gartner's global shipment estimate was accurate, Macs accounted for about 6 per cent of the world's total.

Some believe Apple has an opportunity to grow that share, a feat the company pulled off during 2013, when Mac sales were up 1% year-over-year even as overall PC shipments fell 10%.

"This was a good quarter for the Mac compared to PCs, especially from the notebook standpoint," said Ben Bajarin in an interview after Apple's earnings call. "The Mac was a bright spot, and it can benefit from the contraction."

Bajarin's theory is that as consumers purchase fewer personal computers and wait longer before buying replacement systems, they will begin to view the household's sole computer as an investment. The Mac will be more attractive than cheaper Windows PCs because of Apple's new practice of giving away OS upgrades and its iWork productivity suite and will be valued for its top-of-the-line construction, Bajarin has argued.

The ASP, or average selling price, of the Mac jumped last quarter, Apple's sales and revenue date revealed, climbing 7.5 per cent to $US1322 from the previous quarter, although still down from the same period the year before. ASPs are an indicator of the mix of models sold, with a higher ASP implying that customers steered toward higher-priced Macs.

Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, pointed to stronger sales of the iMac and MacBook Pro lines as likely reasons for the ASP increase. "The Retina MacBook Pro is a very attractive product," Gottheil said, not only because of its high-resolution screen, but also because Apple narrowed the price gap between the popular 13-in. MacBook Pro and the same-sized MacBook Air, which lacks a Retina display, to $200 in October, making the former more attractive as an impulse upgrade.

Unlike in past earnings calls, Apple CEO Time Cook was not asked about cannibalization, the idea that some portion of iPad sales have come at the expense of lost Mac sales. In fact, the Wall Street analysts didn't ask a single question about the Mac line during the earnings call.

That may be as good a clue as any that Wall Street, if not Apple, sees the Mac as a minor part of the company's business. That was certainly the case: In 2013's fourth quarter, Mac sales generated just 11% of the company's total revenue, the second-lowest percentage ever.

For all intents and purposes, Apple is a smartphone company first (56 per cent of all revenue) and a tablet company second (20%). The Mac comes in a distant third, producing just $US2 billion more in revenue than the bucket Apple identifies as iTunes, services and software, which also grew by 19 per cent year-over-year.

But from everything Apple has said, it has no intention of downplaying the Mac. Oppenheimer touted the December release of the cylindrical Mac Pro in his prepared remarks Monday, and in interviews with Macworld, a sister publication to Computerworld, on the 30th anniversary of the Mac's debut. Other executives, meanwhile, maintained that the Mac will live on and will not end up in a shotgun marriage with the iPad to create the kind of 2-in-1 or hybrid designs Windows OEMs are experimenting with.

This article, Mac sales jump 19% when compared to terrible Q4 2012, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

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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