The ingredients may have been there for Mac sales to continue to fall. Up till the fall of 2016, only one Mac had been refreshed, the MacBook with the usual processor upgrades. While OS X became macOS with the release of Sierra in late September, not a peep was heard from Apple about any further Mac upgrades.
The rumor mills had mentioned just one Mac getting the love, the MacBook Pro, which had received its last update in 2015. While one might take rumors with tiny grains of salt, it didn’t take long for them to coalesce on something resembling the final design. So it would be thinner and lighter, following Apple’s obsession with such things. The venerable function keypad would be replaced by a context-sensitive touchscreen with an OLED display. The final name was revealed at Apple’s October media event — the Touch Bar.
Now the Late 2016 MacBook Pro was one of the most controversial products ever released by Apple. The chatter — and the complaints — just didn’t stop. It was not professional enough, it was too expensive, it needed more RAM, and the Touch Bar? It’s just an silly extravagance.
Customers have also apparently had problems matching Apple’s claims of up to 10 hours battery life. Some received half that, but things got pretty dicey when Consumer Reports decided not to recommend the new models due to inconsistent battery life results.
I’ve weighed in on this before. CR uses a screwy battery test, which involves downloading 10 sites from their web server and loading them via a computer’s default browser with the cache turned off.
As regular readers know, this curious scheme required turning on the Develop menu in Safari, and it also triggered an inconsistent bug, constant reloading of icons, which produced erratic battery life. Rather than just reaching out to Apple for these anomalous results, particularly after previous Mac notebooks rated so well, they published the reviews with a not recommended rating.
Of course, this bug wasn’t discovered until Apple reached out to CR to figure out how their user-hostile tests were done. Earlier this week, both Apple and CR announced that the bug had been fixed in the upcoming macOS Sierra 10.12.3 release. After basically being embarrassed in public for their headline grabbing antics to ding Apple, CR retested the computers and finally gave them all top marks. Indeed, battery life ranged from 15.75 hours to 18.75 hours.
As I said above, Apple claims up to 10 hours based on two sets of tests that I outlined in yesterday’s column. Long and short is that the new MacBook Pros actually garnered better battery ratings than just about any other notebook recently tested by CR, other than one model from HP and another from Vaio. Still, some Mac users are claiming inferior battery life, but since I assume a heavy portion of those users aren’t just reloading sites in the Develop menu, there may be another problem.
That said, perhaps the Sierra 10.12.3 update will address other battery issues too. It’s not that Apple is always clear about listing all problems in its release notes.
In the meantime, despite the fact that there was only one major Mac product release this year, it may well be that Apple has finally overcome falling sales. At a time when some question the company’s commitment to the platform, blue skies may lie ahead.
So according to the “preliminary” 4th quarter worldwide estimates from Gartner. Mac sales were up 2.4% year-over-year, to a total of 5,440,000, representing a total share of 7.5%. Number one was Lenovo, with a 21.7% share, and a total of 15,781,000 units sold, an increase of 1.6%. Overall, the market contracted some, continuing a long-term trend.
The other major survey came from IDC, which reported that Mac sales were down slightly, 0.9 percent., to 5,263,000. This isn’t bad in an eroding market, but you have to wonder the reasons for the differences.
In his appearance on The Tech Night Owl LIVE, industry analyst Stephen Baker, of the NPD Group, pronounced U.S. sales of both the Mac and iPhone as really good for the holiday quarter.
Of course, with estimates, you expect a margin for error. The real story will be told by Apple on January 31, when they are scheduled to announce earnings for the holiday quarter. But even if Mac sales are flat or only represent a slight increase, consistent with Gartner’s results, that would still be a pretty good figure. After all, the MacBook Pro only began to ship in quantity in November. It was the only all-new Mac for the entire year, and all the desktop models are long in the tooth. Although the iMac had an update in the fall of 2015, the Mac mini hasn’t been touched since 2014, and the Mac Pro is unchanged from the 2013 version.
Now Tim Cook is promising good things for Apple’s Mac desktop roadmap. Certainly high sales for the MacBook Pro would give Apple the incentive to continue to innovate. That said, if new models are in the offing this spring, they are soon to enter production, so Apple knows precisely what changes will come. The rumors should begin to come together in the next few weeks.
And decent Mac sales, in the face of the ongoing PC downturn, would go a long way towards inspiring confidence in the Mac’s future. Now how about a Magic Keyboard 2 with Touch Bar support? That’s the ticket.