More to Mac sales than a halo

For years, it's been fashionable to link an increase Mac shipments with an increase in iPod shipments. That's because it's easier to draw one line than six lines.

Tom Krazit Former Staff writer, CNET News
Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.
Tom Krazit
4 min read

It's very easy to take a look at Apple's stellar fourth quarter and conclude that the long-awaited iPod "halo effect" is in full swing and move onto something more pressing, like handicapping the World Series.

Are Mac sales really soaring simply because people like iPods? James Martin/CNET Networks

For years as the iPod took over the digital music player market, we all wondered whether it was a one-hit wonder, whether Apple could translate that success into increased Mac market share. Millions of people who might not have used an Apple product since they spent the third grade playing Oregon Trail on an Apple II were re-introduced to Apple through the iPod, and for the last year or so, they would appear to be trying the other things on the menu.

Apple announced Monday that Mac shipments were up 34 percent during the last quarter, the most successful period of computer sales ever for Apple (neé Computer) Inc. Overall, Apple sold 2.2 million Macs, 400,000 more than the previous record for Mac sales set just last quarter.

The iPod often gets the credit for increased Mac shipments, described as the "halo effect" over past years. The thinking is that iPod customers, having enjoyed their iPod experience and having seen Apple in a new light, might be more inclined to pick up a Mac while shopping for a new iPod case and realizing their old PC is woefully out of date.

But despite the recent results, it's still just not that simple. Apple said during its earnings conference call that half of the customers who bought Macs at its retail store last quarter were new Mac owners. Viewed against total Mac shipments of 2.2 million during the quarter, that's actually not all that many brand-new Mac users.

Apple sold 473,000 Macs at its retail stores. That means we're talking about something like 200,000 people last quarter who were new to the Mac--assuming some number of people bought multiple Macs to send the twins off to college--and the rest are Mac veterans upgrading to a new Macbook or one of the new iMacs. It's fair to assume that there was some percentage of new Mac customers who bought their systems online or through other channels, but an Apple representative declined to share any statistics on the percentage of new buyers in those other areas.

Obvious as it may seem, it's really hard to quantify the halo effect. Believe me, I've just spent the last several hours trying. The numbers seem simple: Apple has sold more than 120 million iPods to date, and Mac shipments are growing much faster than the overall market.

But Hewlett-Packard's worldwide shipments are growing twice as fast as the overall market. Acer's worldwide shipments are growing at nearly four times the overall market. Even in the U.S., where Apple does the majority of its business and is the third-leading PC vendor, everyone but Dell is growing much faster than the overall market. HP might have a brand name in printers, but nobody, even HP, has a consumer product with nearly the cachet of the iPod.

Maybe Mac shipments are growing because people have had two or three Windows PCs in their lifetime, and are looking for something different. Maybe Mac shipments are growing because people are upgrading older PowerPC-based systems to Intel-based systems. Maybe younger buyers, a larger segment of the population than us Gen Xers, prefer the Mac over the PC. And, yes, maybe Mac shipments are growing because of the amazing swirl around Apple in 2007 spearheaded by the iPhone.

It would be silly to say the iPod has had no effect on the way Apple is viewed by the public. Anyway you slice it, the iPod contributed to a more positive impression of the company among those who hadn't always supported Apple as a matter of principle.

But I'm not convinced that you can draw a direct line between iPods and Macs. Are you more likely to buy an HP PC because you own (and like) your HP printer? Are you more likely to buy a Sony television because you've spent thousands of quality hours with your PlayStation 2? Maybe, maybe not.

I will throw this out there: I think more people are buying Macs because there is no longer a penalty for switching to a Mac. After all, you can run Windows on a Mac, open and edit Word documents in Mac OS, and you probably spend most of your time on one Web page or another that doesn't care what operating system is in control.

With only small technical differences to worry about, the purchasing decision comes down to branding and marketing. Apple may resonate in your brain because you like your iPod, but I'd argue that the company's combination of world-class marketing, a laser-like focus on design, and the decision to switch to Intel's chips has done more for Mac sales than any one factor alone.