MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer noted last week that there’s been concern for the past year or so over slowing Mac sales, although at the same time iPad and iPhone sales have been skyrocketing, so it’s easy to finger at iPads as the reason for the decline. Also probably overly simplistic.
While the Mac is still doing relatively better than the beleaguered PC industry, in general, Maxcer suggests that a more pertinent question is why Mac sales, which used to outgrow the industry by 20-30 percent, is now shrinking at nearly the same rate. There are various theories, a couple of which were noted by Fortune’s Philip Elmer-DeWitt, citing Needam analyst Charlie Wolf in a note to investors. Wolf thinks factors contributing to slowing mac sales could be what he calls a “fading halo effect,” and a growing price differential between Macs and Windows PCs. The former refers to the dynamic of new Mac users entering the Apple community through purchase of an iPhone, iPad, or iPod, and thereby becoming attracted to the Mac as well. Wolf says: “we believe the superiority of Macs in ease of use, design and in free post-sale support in the Apple Stores blew the door off.” However he suggests that “It’s possible that the halo effect has lost some of its luster in the sense that the emergence of the iPad has impacted Mac sales more than PC sales… Customers who visited an Apple Store to buy a Mac might have been swayed to buy an iPad instead.”
As for the price factor, Wolf noted that “Over the past 11 years the average price of a Mac has fallen at an 0.7% annual rate, reflecting Apple’s strategy of enhancing its Macintosh family with upgrades, such as faster processors and superior screens, while maintaining the same price points… In comparison, the average price of a PC has fallen at a 4.9% annual rate.” I have to say that I find the advertised prices of Windows 8.1 PC laptops mighty tempting at times. I mean a 15.6-inch Hewlett Packard laptop 320GB HDD/2GB RAM for Can$269.88, or a Toshiba 15.6-inch 500 GB HDD/6GB RAM $379.98(current drug store flyer received this week!). And if a 20+ year Mac loyalist like me finds that low ball price enticing, it’s no mystery why people who have no affinity for Apple for or first-hand experience with Macs would find them irresistible.
While those factors would doubtless have contributed to the Mac’s sales slide, Maxcer thinks that others have been in play as well. In his opinion, one of Apple’s elemental Mac sales problems it that if you build a superior and ultra-reliable reliable product, customers will have longer upgrade cycles, and because Macs are so well built, they last a long time. The late-2008 MacBook I’m typing on right now is a case in point. My provisional target, rarely realized, used to be a three-year interval between primary system upgrades. However, this machine is well into its fifth year of service, and still acquits itself amazingly well, never having suffered a single instance of downtime.
I agree with Maxcer that the Mac attribute of reliable durability is no bad thing, and that it makes for smarter, more loyal customers overall, but it can can slow the upgrade purchase cycle.
Another inhibition some Mac users have in upgrading older hardware to Apple’s more recent Mac models is that while unprecedentedly long battery runtime and thin, ultralight form factors are ideal for on-the-go laptop users — not so much for a large proportion of laptop users who use their machines mostly as portable desktop substitutes. Maxcer notes that while thinner is great for packing around, when you don’t have to lug your MacBook all over the place, saving a pound and some physical bulk when what you mostly do is to go from desk to couch to bed and back again isn’t a big deal (and many of us have an iPad for mobile use anyway).
Moreover, he observes that what is a big deal is non-upgradable storage, such as how 400 GB of data stored on a user’s current Mac’s hard drive won’t fit into a 128 GB or 256 GB MacBook Air or Retina MacBook Pro flash drive, and SSD capacities greater than those get prohibitively expensive on what is already a premium-priced machine.
To say nothing of non-upgradable RAM, which is in some respects more of a deal-breaker than non-upgradable storage for users like me who aspire to keep their Macs for long intervals between upgrades. There are practical workarounds for outgrown data storage capacity, such as shunting some of the overflow onto an external volume. Not ideal but one can live with it. However, being stuck with too little RAM can affect one’s entire performance profile with no way around it, as I expect owners of MacBook Airs that shipped with a measly 2 GB of RAM are discovering. I now consider 4 GB a workable minimum system memory capacity, especially with more powerful integrated graphics to support, but being obliged cough up for both a higher-capacity SSD and 8 (or more for belt-and-suspenders future-proofing really takes the shine off of Mac initial purchase cost. As The register’s Bob Dormon succinctly observes, ” I’m not sure I’m ready to commit myself to soldered RAM and the hope that upgrades will appear for its custom SSD form factor.” Copy that.
Speaking of future-proofing, both of Apple’s Retina MacBook Pro models are now in practical terms unrepairable short of a factory rebuild or reports manufacture. The latest 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display revision released last month actually dropped from its immediate predecessor’s two out of ten rating to the same miserable one out of ten as its 15-inch sibling has had all along — the lowest repairability rating iFixIt has ever awarded, a dubious distinction now shared incidentally by Microsoft’s Surface tablet PCs. And with the battery even more integrated with the case, a worn out or defective one requires a major teardown and rebuild — likely uneconomic by the time it’s required given the retained market value of a four or five year old laptop. As a Mac-user with two upgraded and tweaked going on 14 year old Pismo PowerBooks still in active and useful service, a practical time horizon of less than half that rubs me the wrong way.
I would venture that yet another factor influencing Mac hardware holdouts is Apple’s termination of OS X support for legacy Carbon apps ported from Power PC days — beginning with OS X 10.7 Lion. I still spend as much or more time on my current MacBook booted from Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard as I do in 10.8 Mountain Lion and haven’t upgraded to 10.9 Mavericks yet. None of Apple’s current MacBooks will boot Snow Leopard, so buying a new system will mean saying goodbye to some applications for which there are no satisfactory non-Carbon substitutes. Bowing to the inevitable, I’ve been trying to wean myself off these heretofore key components of my production software suite, but still find myself booting back into OS X 10.6 frequently in order to access them.
To summarize, were it not for the issues cited above, I would almost certainly have upgraded my anchor Mac to newer hardware by now. I had been waiting to see if Apple would upgrade the 13-inch old school MacBook Pro one more time to Haswell processors and Intel HD Graphics 5000, but it’s been passed over twice as the MacBook Air and Retina MacBook Pro got their Haswell transplants, so any hope of that has gone from flickering to extinguished. It could have made my upgrade decision a lot easier, though.