• The Mac Hardware Report: Successful or Not?

    January 21st, 2006

    All right, you know the score. Apple blasted earnings estimates out of the water last quarter with sales of $5.7 billion, which included 14 million iPods and one-and-a-quarter million Macs. Both were ahead of the previous year, although the increase in computer sales was relatively modest.

    But in a universe where expectations of Apple sales have reached almost astronomical proportions, it’s not enough, and Apple’s computer business must be in trouble, at least according to some analysts. How do you figure that? Well, these worthy folks have come to believe the sales figures are a few hundred thousand units short of what they’d hoped for. Maybe so, and we’ll know more when Apple officially discloses all the information about its quarterly earnings on Wednesday. Unfortunately, Apple no longer breaks down Mac sales beyond desktop and laptop, but you can make a few educated guesses regardless.

    Prior to the Macworld Expo, it was widely believed that Apple would be introducing a replacement for the Mac mini and the iBook, and I suspect some of you held back your buying plans as a result. Because they were updated in October, sales of the iMac and PowerBook were probably not seriously affected, and the Power Mac has been in the doldrums for quite a while, and it’s questionable whether dual-core processors helped an awful lot.

    Now with that prelude, that Mac sales were pretty good overall ought to be considered as encouraging, not disappointing. Now maybe I’m just trying to find excuses, but did you buy a Mac mini or an iBook in the last few months, or did you decide to wait? Did you, as I did, expect the iMac and PowerBook to continue virtually unaltered for the time being? And if you bought either new in the past three months, are you feeling a little upset just about now?

    Just because Apple has the first MacIntels out the door, or approaching the entrance in the case of the MacBook Pro, it won’t halt a potential impact to sales. We all know that there will be replacements for the Mac mini and iBook in the months to come, and it’s quite possible those replacements are even now undergoing final production tests for an early introduction. With Apple’s 30th anniversary approaching, you won’t feel foolish if all but the Power Mac has received an Intel upgrade by April 1st.

    Since I am often asked to recommend new computers to people, this creates a dilemma. The iMac, of course, is a perfect home and small office personal computer, and you can now feel confident it won’t change in the near future. If you can live with a 15.4-inch screen, and don’t want something larger and smaller, I wouldn’t hesitate to spring for a MacBook Pro, with an exception or two that might still be deal breakers.

    The first is the Classic environment, which is now history, and you need to consider that if you still have some legacy apps that you need to run. The second is a solution for running Windows. Now maybe you will be able to dual boot, so you can run both operating systems, although the existing 32-bit version of Windows XP is not compatible with the Intel’s EFI booting firmware used in the MacIntels. Perhaps there will be a hack to address that, or you’ll have to wait for a compatible version or a new Windows emulator.

    The existing version of Microsoft Virtual PC won’t run, although it appears an Intel-compatible or Universal version will appear one of these days if the published reports are correct. Another product designed to run Windows on your Mac, iEmulator, is slated to become available in an Intel-compatible version by next month. While the competition to Virtual PC tends to be slower, that should change considerably when they move to Intel. In the meantime, if you need to run Windows applications and don’t want to buy a standard PC for that purpose, you’ll have to wait for one of those solutions to arrive.

    Even if you confine your efforts to a standard Mac OS X application, you may still have reason to postpone your buying plans. While Microsoft Office runs well enough, and Apple’s own digital lifestyle applications are Universal now, with the professional applications to follow in March, what about the other products? If you dabble in Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator, maybe you won’t be too concerned if things run noticeably slower, unless your present Mac is a fairly recent model. Otherwise, there’s yet another reason to wait. Although Quark Inc. is about to release a Universal version of its QuarkXPress 7.0 beta, the final product won’t ship until the second quarter, perhaps after the beta expires. Adobe probably won’t get to its Universal act together until the fall. Even the newly announced After Effects 7.0 is, for now, shipping in standard PowerPC and Windows XP versions.

    In the end, it’s still all about the apps. And it’s best to make your purchase decisions accordingly. At the same time, by converting the sweet spot of its Mac line to Intel, Apple has made a huge start towards the latest processor transition. Unless the new models aren’t suitable because of the software you need to run, there’s no reason to hold off anymore, and I suspect Mac sales will look real good this year.

    At the same time, I suspect Apple is going to continue to rush its transition, the better to goose development of those high power apps from Adobe and others so they will soon ship with that all-important Universal label.

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