Analysts pull Mac sales numbers out of a hat

IDC, Gartner can't agree on whether U.S. sales are up or down at Apple

Apple's Mac sales are up. Unless they're down, say analysts.

Second-quarter estimates of Mac sales by Gartner Inc. and IDC split yesterday, with the former saying Apple's numbers were up 2.5 per cent over the same quarter last year and the latter saying they were, in fact, down 12.4 per cent year-over-year.

"We may revisit our numbers next week, and get more aggressive," acknowledged Loren Loverde, director of IDC's quarterly PC sales tracker. Apple is scheduled to present its second-quarter Mac sales numbers and revenue on Tuesday.

According to Gartner, Apple sold an estimated 1.42 million Macs in the U.S. for the quarter ending June 30, a 2.5 per cent bump from the 1.39 million Macs sold in the same quarter last year. If accurate, it would be the first time since the fourth quarter of 2008 that Apple's sales have grown; during the first three months of this year, Mac sales were down 3 per cent from the same period in 2008.

IDC, however, had different numbers, and put U.S. Mac sales at 1.21 million, down 12.4 per cent from 2008's 1.39 million. "The biggest factor is that a year ago Apple was growing by 30-plus points each quarter," said Loverde. "It's very difficult to maintain these high growth numbers."

Wall Street analyst Brian Marshall, of Broadpoint AmTech, meanwhile, said in a research note Monday that he pegs Mac sales at 2.78 million worldwide. Apple, however, sells more Macs in the U.S. than in any other market.

IDC's estimates of Apple's sales dropped the computer maker into the fifth spot, behind Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Acer and Toshiba. Acer in particular, and Toshiba to a lesser extent, have benefited from the surge in sales of netbooks, the small, light and inexpensive notebooks, said Loverde. U.S. sales for Acer, for instance, grew 51 per cent last quarter, while Toshiba's jumped 34 per cent.

Apple has no product in the netbook category, a sin of omission in the minds of most financial analysts. Its lowest-priced notebook is the $US999 MacBook, a machine priced double or triple that of most netbooks.

"There may be a little pressure here for Apple from Wall Street," said Loverde, "but does Apple have to have a netbook? No, they don't. Apple is a very unique company in a lot of ways, and if you look at their whole history, people are always saying they have to do this, have to do that, but they've struck their own path."

That pressure to so something, anything, may be about to ease, Loverde said, citing projections by IDC that while netbook sales will likely continue to grow at double-digit rates, the continuing freefall in ASPs, or average sale prices, won't outlast the year.

"ASPs are falling about 15 per cent annually now," said Loved, but that type of impact won't stick around past 2009."

Even if IDC's numbers do prove out -- and end up closer to Apple's than Gartner's -- Loverde said not to spill any tears for the company. "The main point with Apple is that they're very well-positioned. They're not a run-of-the-mill company, and they've done well in the past. There's no reason why that should change."

On the plus side for Apple, Loverde said, is the recent price cuts to its MacBook Pro line. A month ago, the company dropped prices between 6.3 per cent and 28 per cent, with the smallest cuts at the low end for the 13-in. MacBook Pro and the largest for the high-end MacBook Air.

And a so-called "tweener" device -- priced between the iPod Touch and the low-end MacBook -- may yet boost Apple's sales volume, said Loverde. "It wouldn't surprise me to see that," he said. "But it wouldn't be a run-of-the-mill netbook."

Recent reports out of Taiwan have cited sources in the country's electronics industry that claim Apple has placed orders with a trio of manufacturers for components that will be used to build a small-sized computer or tablet with a 9.7-in. screen that would sell for about $US800. The device, which some have dubbed an "iPad," will debut in October, those same sources said.

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