Apple beats recession, sells more Macs, still scorns netbooks

Last quarter Apple saw more sales after dropping prices on Macs. Other hot sellers were the iPhone, iPod Touch

As some analysts predicted, Apple today announced that Mac sales climbed last quarter, just three months after it was forced to report the first drop-off in six years.

Company-wide revenues jumped 12% for the quarter compared with the same period in 2008, based not only on better Mac sales, but soaring sales of both the iPod Touch and the iPhone. Sales of the former, for instance, were up 130% year-over-year for the quarter, while iPhone sales leaped 626%.

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"Everything for Apple did better than people had feared," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research. "But I don't know how much of this is Apple's doing. The real change, I think, is more of consumer confidence. Apple's poor quarter last time was a function of how scared people were. Now, they're thinking, 'It may be a long slog, but we've hit bottom.'"

Apple sold 2.6 million Macs during the just-concluded quarter, a 4% increase over the 2.5 million it sold in the year-ago quarter. "We had outstanding sales," Peter Oppenheimer, Apple's chief financial officer, said during a conference call with Wall Street analysts. "This was a new June quarter record, nearly meeting the all-time record in September 2008." Apple sold 2.61 million machines in 2008's third calendar quarter.

Revenues from Mac sales, however, were down 8%, from $3.6 million last year to $3.3 million this year. That was, said Apple, the result of lower prices for its portable line, and a shift within its notebook models to the lower-priced MacBook Pros.

But they professed they were "thrilled" to sell more Macs this year than last, during an economic downturn where overall computer sales, according to research firms such as IDC, are currently off by about 3%. Not surprisingly, Apple sold more than double the number of laptops (1.75 million) than desktops (849,000). Laptop sales were up 13% year-over-year, but desktop sales -- as they have trended for some time -- declined 10%.

To emphasize that Mac sales live or die by its laptop sales, both Oppenheimer and Tim Cook, the company's chief operating officer, celebrated the June refresh of the MacBook Pro line, when Apple also cut prices between 6% and 28%. "After the transition [to the new models], in our non-education business, people were upselling from the $999 [MacBook] to the $1,199 [MacBook Pro]," said Cook. "For $200, it's a significant amount of features."

Some models -- particularly the $1,199 13-in. MacBook Pro and the $1,699 15-in. MacBook Pro -- are in short supply at the moment, confirmed Cook. Both show a seven-day delay in shipping on Apple's own online store. "There are a couple of models constrained today, but we will get beyond [that] in the next two weeks," promised Cook.

Gottheil heard the word "value" over and over again from Cook today. "I must have heard it 42 times," he said, only slightly exaggerating. "That's going to be their response to the 'price' talk of Microsoft and its 'Laptop Hunter' ads. The fact that retail revenue was only up 4% but retail traffic was up 22% shows that they're succeeding in getting across the idea that the Apple experience is worth the Apple difference in price."

All that talk has created a slightly different Apple, Gottheil said. "They've got the same strategy now for all their lines, including the iPhone, that they've had for notebooks and desktops," he said. "You see the entry price of the category, and it's not a bait and switch, there's value at the entry price, but for only a little bit more, there's something significantly better."

He argued that Apple used that tactic to its advantage after its laptop refresh, when the difference between the $999 previous-generation MacBook and the redesigned 13-in. MacBook Pro was just $200. "I think we're seeing [in the unit sales and revenue numbers] the upselling that Apple's doing," Gottheil said. "So average selling prices are taking a bit of a hit, and it's not clear where the price floor is going to be. But any price drops from now on, they won't be out of any sense of compulsion."

Some things, however, never change. As it has for almost a year now, Apple belittled the low-priced, lightweight PC notebook market. "Some of the netbooks being delivered are very slow, with software technology that is old, they lack horsepower, they have small displays and cramped keyboards," said Cook. "I could go on and on but I won't," he added, after he already had.

In answer to an analyst's question about whether Apple envisions a market for a "truly mobile device with a larger screen than an iPhone" -- in other words, a tablet-style device, Cook again heaped abuse on netbooks. "Our goal is to build the best product, so at whatever price point, we'll build the best," he said. "But we don't see a great product at this $399, $499 price point."

Gottheil took that to mean that there's still a possibility Apple will introduce something at a price higher than the $499 minimum that Cook mentioned. "I still think the best time for this would be at the end of the back-to-school selling season," said Gottheil, talking about late September or October. Reports out of Taiwan earlier this month claimed that Apple will unveil an $800 touch screen-based device in October. For his part, Gottheil thinks it's just as likely that Apple will retrofit older components -- those that made up a circa-2006 MacBook, for instance -- in a new case and sell it at around $700.

Apple sold 5.2 million iPhones in the quarter, largely on the back of the release of the new iPhone 3GS in mid-June. "We were unable to make enough to meet demand," Oppenheimer said of the 3GS. Cook went even further: "iPhone 3GS [inventory] is constrained in virtually every country," he said.

iPhone sales were up 37% over the first quarter of 2009, and a not-so-amazing 626% over the same quarter last year. The latter wasn't as impressive as it looked, Gottheil said, since the comparison quarter was the one in which Apple ran out of first-generation iPhones in the run-up to the announced launch of the iPhone 3G in July 2008.

"But the 5.2 million, that's a very impressive number, given the economic market," said Gottheil.

The other big seller, said Cook, was the iPod Touch, whose sales jumped 130% year-over-year. However, that model of the iPod line, along with the iPhone, have cannibalized sales of the more traditional iPod music players, the executives admitted today.

"The App Store has become their rock," Gottheil said, talking about the Apple-run online mart for applications that can be loaded onto the iPhone and iPod Touch. "It's an amazing success [and it's] created a barrier to competition."

This story, "Apple beats recession, sells more Macs, still scorns netbooks" was originally published by Computerworld.

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