Peak Mac: The Dawn Of The Real PC Market

I don't want to give up my desktop computer, but it seems like many people do.

Dan Frommer at SplatF lays it all out: The PC industry is in decline. The Mac, which was growing while the rest of PCs were shrinking, is now shrinking, too. But if you add in the iPad and count all of Apple's "computers" at once, the numbers are through the roof.

It's pretty clear what all this means. As Steve Jobs said, PCs are trucks, and tablets are cars. Most people don't drive around in trucks. But the ones who drive trucks need great ones, and that's where Apple is starting to focus its Mac efforts exclusively.

Here in the U.S., at the peak of the George W. Bush era (remember him?), a trend began where people whose jobs entailed parking their car, going inside, and doing something on a computer began driving hulking monster trucks designed to resemble military assault vehicles. But after realizing over decades how much unnecessary energy those SUVs consumed, the trend swung back, and now many people conspicuously drive little hybrids instead.

Consumer products can be like that. Trends swing back and forth like a pendulum as new technology becomes available to meet people's tastes.

The Tablet Trend

What we see in Frommer's amazing charts is the adoption of just such a trend. Yes, it may be that Mac sales declined 22% in 2012, the biggest drop in 10 years, but that fall in Mac consumption can't come close to accounting for the soaring iPad numbers.

Certainly, there's a use case for a tablet that replaces the point-and-click PC completely. It does a better job for lots of people, since the battery lasts all day and it fits in a handbag. Apple should be thrilled to sacrifice Mac sales in exchange for selling iPads to those people. The company is even betting that this trend will take a bite out of the enterprise PC market, and it seems a pretty safe bet.

But the iPad was not the first $500 portable computer. It may (seriously) be the best one, but its astronomical adoption rate is not simply driven by the sudden realization by tens of millions of people that they can be more efficient workers on this device.

Tablets are also entertainment systems. They're an elective choice, like the choice of a Hummer or Prius over a used Honda. They're trendy.

Likewise, not everyone who bought a white plastic MacBook needed all its capabilities. They needed some of them, which a $300 Windows netbook also offered, and they wanted some of them, like the ability to watch Netflix in bed. But those people have the iPad now. It's a better choice for those uses. And Apple doesn't have to make that Mac at all anymore.

The Real PC Market

Since the "what is a PC?" argument is not yet resolved, I propose this definition: A PC is a computer with a multi-window workspace and a pixel-precise input method. For now, though I think this part can change with good-enough voice interfaces, let's include a physical keyboard, too.

The PC market is surely subject to trends, but that 22% drop in Mac sales is not the end of the Mac trend. Apple knows that as well as anybody. In 2012, Apple shipped the first Macs with retina displays and a striking new iMac, which, as CEO Tim Cook pointed out in the Q1 2013 earnings call was not available for most of the quarter in which the low Mac numbers were reported.

Why would Apple ship those products in a down year, fighting the clear trend against PCs? Because today's PC market is the real PC market. The people who still buy PCs actually need them. It might be a pretty hard crash for low-margin PC manufacturers, but for Apple, with high-end Macs bolstered by roaring iPhone and iPad businesses, it's just a chance to build the best, most powerful PCs it has ever made.

And that's not to say that Windows PCs are finished, either. It just means they have to be excellent enough for an increasingly high-end market.

 

Lead image by Eliot Weisberg for ReadWrite. Chart courtesy of Splatf. Bottom image from Apple.