Mac Versus PC Switching and Falling for False Media Narratives

June 30th, 2017

You know the story. Apple repeats it nearly every quarter when reporting Mac sales, up or down. About 50% of the people buying one are new to the platform; most are presumably Windows switchers.

Now I’m not altogether sure where Apple gets its data. Perhaps people just registering a Mac for the first time are given a questionnaire to respond to a few questions. I have not seen one, but I’ve been buying Macs since the late 1980s. I’m obviously not new to the platform.

Since I haven’t seen a legitimate argument that this claim is false, I’ll leave it be. But that brings us to a recent headlined story from MacRumors on the subject. The headline pretty much sums it up: “Nearly One in Four Windows Users Surveyed Plan to Switch to Mac Within Next Six Months.” In turn, only 2% of those surveyed plan to switch to Windows.

The survey was made by Verto Analytics, and is based on a sampling of 6,000 current Windows PC owners age 18 or over. There’s not much more about the survey’s demographics, except that the highest percentage of potential Mac switchers earn annual incomes of $150,000 or more.

According to the company’s site, Verto Analytics has four offices around the world and claims to have been quoted by major publications. That said, there’s little indication of a track record for accuracy. Surveys can often be manipulated to produce any result you want, and this one is provocative.

On the surface, this new survey doesn’t seem at all logical. Mac sales growth has been on the slow side of late, in the face of flat or declining sales of PCs. In the first quarter of 2017, PC shipments in the U.S. totaled 12.3 million units according to a Gartner survey. Of these, Apple sold 1.47 million; the rest of Mac sales were in other countries. So Windows PC sales alone were 10.83 million, meaning a high single digit share for the Mac.

If this 10.83 million figure represented 75% of the potential total, with the rest going Mac, millions of sales aren’t being accounted for. And that would just involve switchers, not regular Mac users who merely wanted to upgrade.

Besides, that someone says they’re buying something doesn’t mean it’s true. Buying intentions are seldom accurate. Also, this survey covers buying plans for the next two quarters, but does that mean there will be a huge spurt in Mac demand?

As it stands, the conclusion doesn’t really wash if you try to parse recent sales figures in any meaningful way. I’m just playing around with the number in a casual way, but it makes for a great headline, and is certain hit bait. At least we have a situation here where a provocative story favors Apple, rather than the other way around.

At the same time the reporter spoils the piece by again touting Microsoft’s alleged success in selling their own PC boxes, the Surface, and “experiencing a resurgence in the post-PC world with an attractive lineup of devices…” Also mentioned is Microsoft’s unproven claim, about more people switching from Macs than ever due to the alleged “disappointment” with the 2016 MacBook Pro. This claim, however, is undercut by the fact that Mac sales have actually grown in the last two quarters, after falling slightly, and this all happened after the new high-end notebook was released.

The argument is further undercut by the revelation that Surface revenue fell 26% in the March quarter, and remains a fraction of Apple’s Mac revenue. So if the Surface is really catching on, why such a steep drop?

It does seem that the Surface is getting a level of hype that’s way beyond its actual sales success, which is not at all impressive for a PC. It’s similar to the high level of attention Amazon is earning for the Echo, even though estimated sales are still no great shakes as low-cost gadgets go.

The long and short is that I don’t believe that 25% of U.S.-based PC owners really plan to switch to the Mac in the next six months. The evidence just isn’t there.

I also do not believe the Surface has been a successful product for Microsoft beyond its hype value, and it doesn’t seem as if it’s generating much in the way of profits. Sure, a Surface isn’t cheap, but Apple sells relatively high-cost gear in far greater quantities, and economies of scale surely help drive those legendary profit margins.

Still, it’s awful nice to read an article that, for the most part, says something favorable about Apple even if the main conclusion isn’t well founded. I’ll be curious to see how Mac sales stack up in the upcoming quarter and the next.

Still, I do expect Mac sales to grow at a higher rate, mostly because Apple launched a larger-than-expected number of product upgrades at the WWDC. It will surely help during the back-to-school and holiday quarters.

One thing is certain, however. I do not expect CEO Tim Cook to say anything at all about the 25% number. He might repeat the mantra about 50% of Macs being sold to customers who are new to the platform, but we’ve heard that one for years. It may even be true, but with relatively slow sales growth for the platform, what does that say about the existing Mac customer base?

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