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More Apple Sales Confusion

The actual number of Macs sold this past quarter will be revealed next week, when Apple releases its most recent quarterly sales figures. Will the figures show an increase, a dip in the face of the introduction of Windows Vista, or just the status quo?

To be sure, both analysts and regular people alike — and we assume an analyst ought to be armed with information that the rest of us can’t get — have been speculating for quite a while as to how well Apple has done.

Understand that the first quarter of the year is usually expected to reveal a sales dip, particularly in the wake of the holiday season. Those who wanted new PCs no doubt acquired them already, except, perhaps, for businesses that may have different purchase cycles.

The arrival of Windows Vista, after a seemingly endless delay, surely complicated matters. Is it realistic to believe that there was pent-up demand for Microsoft’s newest operating system? If so, you’d see some uptake in the sales of Windows upgrade kits, and surely PCs preloaded with the new operating system would be flying off the shelves?

At least that’s the theory.

In practice, it appears that Vista’s impact, though in evidence, may only be temporary. Most of the copies Microsoft has sold so far went to the PC makers who installed them on new systems. Eager PC users lusting after Vista weren’t in evidence in particularly large numbers on Vista’s release date.

According to preliminary figures released by Gartner, first quarter Mac sales in the U.S. are up 30% over last year. Apple has five percent of the market, standing at number five behind Toshiba. Dell remained number one, although it lost that title to HP worldwide. However, Dell’s sales continue to drop, and it’s only narrowly ahead of HP in this country. Indeed, Dell has its share of problems, but that’s another matter entirely.

In any case, the latest set of figures, if accurate, clearly show that Apple has probably weathered the worst of the Vista onslaught, if it could be called that.

What makes matters all the more complicated is that most of these sales surveys apparently don’t include Apple’s own retail or online sales outlets. And a heavy and growing amount of Macs are sold direct, so that can clearly skew figures in the wrong direction or right direction, depending on your point of view. That would clearly indicate that Apple is actually doing better than the figures from Gartner and others indicate. This may indeed be why Apple almost always delivers better numbers than financial people expect.

Indeed, you can’t trust any of these preliminary reports. Apple is going to keep its actual sales results close to the vest, and only reveal them as required by the SEC and to satisfy its investors.

When those numbers are revealed, Apple will provide the appropriate level of corporate spin and deliver as little information as it needs to tell its story. That’s why, for example, Apple no longer breaks out Mac unit sales beyond desktop and note-book, and also lumps iPod sales into a single category.

Alas, this increased level of secrecy, although it’ll likely confound Apple’s competitors and confuse the financial community, may not necessarily serve the company’s best interests. While I can understand the marketing logic behind making new product announcements into special events that attract worldwide attention, it makes it awful hard for a business to plan its purchases.

If Apple hopes to persuade more companies to adopt Macs, they may have to deliver a little more illumination on product plans. No, not the form factor and features of the next iPod, but simply when it expects to upgrade Macs to newer processors and similar design decisions.

You see, the switch to Intel has made the Mac far less unique than it used to be when it comes to hardware. Intel’s processor roadmaps are announced months and years in advance. You know when the chips are expected to appear, and the finer details of speeds, power consumption and expected performance.

As far as the other components that are included in new Macs, Apple is using many of the same hard drives, graphics hardware and other parts that you find in any PC these days. Apple may provide neater assemblies, and prettier cases (well, mostly), but they buy their stuff from the same parts bins

As far as the essentials are concerned, the Mac and the PC aren’t all that different, even though the operating system, and the general user experience, differs extensively.

But that’s also a good thing. It helps Apple keep Mac prices competitive, although there are still far too many people who believe the PC is cheaper, when equipped similarly. But that’s not an attitude that’ll probably change any time soon — or ever.