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Is the Mac Falling Behind Windows?

If you can believe recent sales estimates from Gartner, Mac sales over the past year fell about twice as much as the average for PC sales. This may be particularly disconcerting, since Apple has long claimed that the rate of growth of the Mac has exceeded the overall PC market. That was mostly true until the last year;

Some suggest Mac sales are dropping because Apple has lost interest in the platform, even though it delivers revenue of over $20 billion per year. To most companies, that would be an extraordinary amount of money, but it’s perceived as relatively tiny compared to the iPhone. But what about the iPad, where revenue was slightly less in the September quarter?

Well, you’ve got me there. There hasn’t been an iPad update since spring, when a 9.7-inch version of the iPad Pro was launched. iPad sales have been consistently on the down side for a while, so is Apple also ignoring that product?

When it comes to Macs, it is true that sales did not decrease as much for other PC makers. They were actually slightly higher for Dell. But there’s not much in the way of real innovation among the largest PC box makers. It’s mostly the same old stuff they’ve sold for years, with up-to-date parts, so it’s not as if there something altogether new about their PCs.

All right, maybe Microsoft is doing something different. Take the Surface Studio, which is an all-in-one desktop  sporting a 28-inch touchscreen display on a flexible arm that be manipulated in an almost infinite number of ways. Supposedly this will be a boon for artists and CAD, and it’s true this machine has gotten pretty good reviews overall. But at a starting price of $3,000, it sits far above the entry-level price of the 27-inch iMac with 5K Retina display. That’s Apple’s nearest potential competitor though, of course, there is no touchscreen and there never will be.

At least Microsoft appears to be trying to do something to advance the state of the art, or at least expand its concept of a PC with touchscreen. It’s hard to see whether such a specialized device as the Studio will be flying off the shelves, but I suppose there’s the possibility Microsoft will move a decent number of them to power users, and thus earn high profits in the same league as Apple.

Does Apple have a response?

Well, Apple will give us the old refrigerator and toaster oven metaphor, that touchscreens aren’t appropriate for a personal computer. Apple’s solution is the Touch Bar, a key feature of the Late 2016 MacBook Pro that puts an OLED touchscreen in place of the traditional function keys. Call it function keys on steroids if you like, but it means that you need not raise your hands onto the screen for any input functions. So maybe they care about muscle strain?

The long-term success of this scheme may be a great unknown, but surveys of Mac sales indicate that Apple managed to grow its market in the December quarter. So it may well be that the dearth of new models earlier this year had its impact. But I wonder how many people who buy Macs are plugged in to news of the latest and greatest models. Or it may be that the new MacBook Pros were — despite all the controversy about the higher price, the features, battery performance and all — so compelling that customers were anxious to buy them.

If that’s the case, will new the promised Mac desktops this year — and perhaps a 2017 version of the MacBook — continue to fuel sales from customers who were sitting on the sidelines waiting for something new and different? What sort of differences does Apple need to make anyway? Or are customers happy enough with Windows 10 not to consider a Mac switch as readily as they used to.

Another possibility is that some businesses who avoided buying PCs because of all of the Windows 8 flaws were willing to accept Windows 10 as business ready. That would boost purchases of gear from companies for whom Macs are not on the radar, or where Macs occupy only a small portion of the total number of computers in use.

I suppose it’s a lot easier to suggest that the Mac is flailing and that it’s back to niche status after sitting in the number four or five position on the global market for a while. No doubt the future trends of PC sales will remain in flux, and Apple’s share will also vary from quarter to quarter.

It’s easier to suggest Apple is in trouble. But most PC makers have faced falling sales to one extent or another. Overall, according to Gartner, global PC shipments have declined for the last five years. During most of those years, Apple managed small increases for the most part. The days of stellar growth are long gone, and for most, it’s going to be downhill from here on. But the pace is still relatively slow, despite the fact that loads and loads of smartphones and tablets have, to many, replaced PCs entirely.

As to Apple, actual figures will be released on Tuesday, January 31st. Even if the sales increase is confirmed, it’ll probably take another quarter or two to see if this represents a trend.