by Shane O'Neill

Mac Sales Drops Help Microsoft, But It Ain’t No Cure

Feb 20, 20093 mins
Data Center

You knew it would happen eventually. The faltering economy finally caught up to Apple, as Mac retail sales dropped 6 percent in January compared to January 2008, according to research firm The NPD Group.

Apple, welcome to earth in 2009, where premium pricing doesn’t cut it anymore.

The 6 percent drop is only one month of data (and a January in a bad economy no less) so it’s not as if the sky is falling on Apple. Yet it was Apple’s first year-over-year decline in three years, says NPD, and is a sign that consumers are valuing price over lifestyle.

This can only be good news for makers of PCs and lightweight, low-cost netbooks. Windows-based PCs are cheap, most in the $650-$850 range. Netbooks are really cheap ($350 or so), and exploding in popularity. Research firm IDC predicts that netbook unit sales will grow by 50 percent over the next two years. We live in a time where cheap is trumping cool, and probably will until this economy turns around. That’s bad news for Apple, which has no netbook (that we know of).

Nevertheless, Apple’s losses are not necessarily Microsoft’s gain. Not in this economy.

The past four months say a lot about consumer spending and the economy.

According to NPD, retail PC sales have had steady year-over-year growth each month since October, peaking at 16.6 percent growth in January. Mac unit sales plummeted from 27 percent growth in October (after it unveiled a new line of MacBooks) to -0.3 percent in November to 0.4 percent in December to -5.5 percent in January.

“It has much more to do with pricing than with just netbooks,” said NPD analyst Stephen Baker. “There’s been some switching even among Apple buyers to the $999 [MacBook]. That’s taken some sales away from the next tier up.”

There seems to be no reason, other than an economic turnaround or reduction in Mac prices, for consumers to start buying Macs in droves again — there is no new line of MacBooks or iMacs coming, and there is no holiday or back-to-school season on the horizon.

So if price is going to trump value for the foreseeable future, what does it mean for PCs and netbooks? It’s not a free pass, that’s for sure. The entire computer industry, Windows-based or not, is likely to suffer this year. Lethargic PC sales are the main reason Microsoft missed its earnings estimates for its fiscal Q2, and forced the company to start a round of unprecedented layoffs. IDC forecasts that PCs will grow by only 9 percent over the next two years.

Just yesterday, key Microsoft OEM Hewlett-Packard posted financial declines, with laptop revenue down 13 percent for the quarter. If you think this is bad for Microsoft, how do you think Apple feels when even companies selling lower-priced PCs are hurting?

Still, Microsoft will not be liberated by Apple’s losses. Even explosive netbook sales will not uplift Microsoft because only the older Windows XP, and not bulky Vista, can run on low-cost netbooks; this will continue to lower Microsoft’s client OS revenue margins. Upcoming Windows 7, designed to be able to run on netbooks, could be a game-changer.

But for the time being, having cash-strapped consumers wave off Macs can only help Microsoft. More people will look closely at the price versus functionality equation and see a compelling case to buy a PC.

What do you think? Will the drop in Mac sales continue as long as the economy stinks, and will Microsoft benefit? Or are they both screwed until the economy gets better?