How did Macs defy the PC sales slump?

Just as the iPod became a gateway drug for the iPhone, which itself became the gateway drug for the iPad, iOS is set to become the platform that tempts people into the OS X ecosystem.

When it comes time for Apple to unveil its quarterly earnings, it's tempting to focus on post-PC devices such as the iPhone and iPad, but the company's latest quarterly earnings breakdown suggests that we shouldn't ignore the Mac.

Over the last quarter, Apple sold 4.4 million Macs. While on the face of it, it doesn't sound like much compared to the 35 million iPhones or the 13 million iPads sold, it is still nonetheless significant.

First up, it pulls in some $5.5 billion in revenue, not far off the $5.9 billion pulled in by the iPad during the same period.

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Those are significant numbers.

Second off, it's the part of Apple's business that saw significant growth, both compared to the earlier quarter and year-on-year. Compared to the previous quarter sales are up 7 percent, and up 18 percent compared to the year-ago quarter.

At a time when PC sales have ranged from – depending on how honest you want to be – lackluster to abysmal, Apple seems to have successfully bucked the trend.

Those are very significant numbers.

On the face of it, there's a lot working against Apple:

  • Macs are premium-priced products.
  • They run a niche operating system.
  • Macs fall mostly into pretty standard desktop and notebook systems.

So what's driving the growth?

According to Apple, the device driving the growth is the diminutive MacBook Air, which is very popular in schools. But the MacBook Air certainly isn't competing on price, with the 11-inch model starting at $899, and the 13-inch model starting at $999.

Then there's China, a country where Apple has seen Mac uptake grow by 39 percent.

Compare this to Chinese PC sales, which are expected to shrink by 5 percent.

There's also the halo effect from the iPhone and iPad. With almost 50 million of those units sold over the last quarter, and the vast majority of users being happy with their purchase, people are clearly looking at Mac and hoping that this platform will please them just as much.

The link between iOS and OS X is one that Apple is planning to capitalize on with future releases. iOS 8 and OS X 10.10 Yosemite will both deliver features that will bring the two platforms closer together, and deliver features that hundreds of millions of iPhone and iPad users can only leverage if they have a Mac.

"These are features only Apple can deliver," said Apple CEO Tim Cook during the company's analyst conference call following the release of the financial results.

Apple is now clearly – and quite aggressively – leveraging the iOS to push OS X, and is capitalizing on the fact that almost 90 percent of iOS devices are running the latest version of iOS (compare this to Android, where less than 20 percent of devices are running the latest KitKat release). And since many of these integrations revolve around productivity, this push could not only put more Macs into homes that have iPhones and iPads, but it could very well build on the success that iOS has seen in the BYOD market and give OS X a huge helping hand.  

Just as the iPod became a gateway drug for the iPhone, which itself became the gateway drug for the iPad, iOS is set to become the platform that tempts people into the OS X ecosystem.

And if Apple is good at anything, it is with creating compelling ecosystems that people want to use.

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