Apple's Mac flies in under the radar
Amid the fanfare accompanying the noisy launch of the iPad mini this week, Apple Inc also took the wraps off new Mac computers.
The facelift may help revitalize an important lineup that -- while seeing growth tail off in the early part of 2012 -- yields 14 per cent of revenue and still racks up sales growth numbers that are the envy of a flagging PC world.
On Tuesday, Apple took the lid off a slimmed-down iMac and a 13-inch laptop with a vastly improved screen, setting the stage for a potential revival in sales even as Hewlett-Packard and Dell Inc struggle just to stay level.
Earlier this year, Apple had also launched an updated MacBook Air - a product analysts say spawned over 20 touch-enabled designs from rivals called "Ultrabooks," which run Microsoft Corp's upcoming Windows 8 software.
Apple remains No. 3 in US market share behind HP and Dell. But the Mac's premium pricing, at $1,000 and above, and its subsequent outsized margins mean a spike in revenue growth can give its bottom line a significant boost.
"The pricing and feature set of the refreshed iMac present an attractive combination, and I would not be surprised to see the new iMac stimulate desktop sales in the December quarter and beyond," Barclays analyst Ben Reitzes said.
The decades-old Macintosh line that helped set a stumbling computer company back on its feet -- today overshadowed in both revenue and media appeal by the popular iPhone and iPad -- saw growth drop to single-digit percentages in the first two quarters of 2012 for the first time since 2009.
Yet sales outgrew the PC market, overall, by more than seven times over the 12 months to June, according to CEO Tim Cook, and has outpaced PC growth over the last six years.
Apple reports fiscal fourth quarter results on Thursday. The company will likely have sold 5.1 million Macs in the October quarter, up just 5 per cent, Piper Jaffray & Co analyst Gene Munster estimates.
On Tuesday, Apple Marketing Chief Phil Schiller called the Mac "what began it all," and he claimed the Mac was America's No. 1 laptop and desktop among individual models. Research houses Gartner and IDC figures place Apple third in the United States with a market share of about 13 per cent.
Regardless where it places, at prices starting at $1,000 for its MacBook Air and going all the way close to $4,000 and growth -- while well off the 30-per cent range of 2010 -- still defying the market, the Mac has proven a consistent money-spinner for the company even during troubled times for the traditional PC.
Intel Corp, HP and other stalwarts of the PC industry are now fighting to sustain growth as tablet computers eat into their PC-related businesses.
While the Mac line has not completely side-stepped PC market trends, it has held up better partly because it is targeted at a higher-spending clientele that values its consistency, vis-a-vis the often fragmented PC, where multiple vendors supply different components that don't always work seamlessly.
But it also owes its success in large part to a so-called halo effect stemming from consumers' experiences with the iPhone and iPad, said Loren Loverde, analyst with research firm IDC.
"They are on the positive end of halo effect both in terms of traffic and brand image," Loverde said, adding that Apple also has yet to fully realize the international growth opportunities for Mac, and expects the new products to see good demand during the holiday quarter.
Late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs introduced the Macintosh in 1984, and it became the first successful computer to feature a mouse and a graphical user interface -- a model that has stayed intact through the succeeding decades. The desktop Mac itself stuck to that interface but has radically shifted in design over the years, to today's slim, all-in-one form.
Analysts say the redesigned Macs may give Apple's December quarter an extra lift, but the quarter will hinge mostly on how many consumers bought iPads and iPhones, which combined accounts for 72 per cent of the company's revenue.
Cook and other executives are likely to be questioned on the smartphone's supply issues and the ramp-up of the new "iPad mini," available in stores on November 2.
"The bigger question is likely the company's ability to ramp supply to meet the strong demand," Baird Equity Research analyst William Power said. Recent investor concerns regarding Apple have included "perceived slowing iPhone innovation, the lack of a strong developing market strategy for iPhone and current iPhone supply constraints."
Apple's stock has reflected some of those concerns. While the stock is up 52 per cent this year, it is down 12 per cent from its record high of $705 on September 21. Despite the pullback, Apple is trading at 11.6 times next year's estimated earnings, same as the S&P 500 and far lower than some rivals like Amazon.com Inc, which trades at 100 times estimated 2013 earnings.
Investors will focus initially on the headline shipment numbers during the fiscal third quarter on Thursday. It is estimated to have sold between 24 million and 26 million iPhones in the July-September period.
And Apple said on Tuesday that it sold its 100 millionth iPad two weeks ago, which means that the company sold under 16 million last quarter. This is below the 17 million to 18 million some analysts had forecast.
Longer term, Apple could also face margin pressure as smartphones pass the 50 penetration rate in major developed markets, said BGC analyst Colin Gillis.
"The next stage of smart phone growth could be more focused on mid-to-lower priced offerings," Gillis said. "Apple may find it difficult to maintain margin while growing massive scale, particularly as the overall market for smartphones slows."