updated 08:30 pm EDT, Thu April 5, 2012
International sales may be mitigating factor
Based on recent sales data from NPD on US Mac sales for January and February that suggested nearly flat year-over-year growth, Morgan Stanley analyst and VP Katy Huberty has predicted that Apple will miss analyst expectations for the first calendar quarter, which vary around 15 percent year-over-year growth. International sales, where Macs are doing better, will offset the flat performance of US Mac sales, where buyers are waiting for updates.
Rumors and reports have persisted that a number of Mac products, most notably the MacBook Pro line, are due for an update, but none appeared in the March quarter. Explanations vary, but many believe Apple is waiting on the new "Ivy Bridge" chip series, due from Intel starting late this month, to incorporate in refreshed Mac products. A number of Mac models, particularly the Mac Pro, are considered "overdue" for an update, though Apple has often proven unpredictable in this regard, particularly by comparison with iOS products.
The MacBook Pro line traditionally is updated with at least a minor refresh twice a year, often in fall and spring (though there have been exceptions, like in 2010 when the line was refreshed once, albeit quite significantly). Then as now, Apple may have held over various models (including the MacBook Air, the Mac mini and even the iMac) from their usual updates to prepare for a significant change in chip and internal design that would be led by Intel's newest chips.
Intel's Ivy Bridge transition may herald a new lineup of desktop and portable Macs that could be released in stages across the summer. Rumors and reports suggest that the MacBook Pro would be among the first machines to sport an Ivy Bridge chip, which while still in the "Core iX" family of processors is thought to modestly improve overall speed and noticeably improve graphics speed while being even smaller and more energy-efficient than the current "Sandy Bridge" chips.
The "Ivy Bridge" chips are also equipped with support for PCI 3.0, suggesting that hardware makers like Apple will adopt the new standard in order to avoid any bottlenecks from Thunderbolt connections. While Apple has been curiously silent on the fate of the Mac Pro, if it is updated at all it will certainly be among the first to get the PCI 3 upgrade, which doesn't change the speed of the 10gbps TB connections but improves throughput internally.
Huberty expresses some pessimism that Apple will be able to achieve 10-15 percent Mac growth year-over-year due to the lack of upgrades in the previous quarter, but doesn't address the brighter longer-term outlook. She also assures investors that strong growth from Apple's other businesses (mostly the iPhone and iPad) will "more than offset" any Mac downside. Currently, iOS devices account for 83 percent of Apple's profits, while Macs account for only about 10 percent.
Despite the short-term negative outlook on Mac growth, international sales of Macs are picking up as the expanded "halo effect" of iOS sales reaches more and more of the globe. Apple was particularly aggressive on making the third-generation iPad available in more countries more quickly than it had done with previous models, and has recently announced new US outlets for the iPhone via some smaller regional carriers.
A year-over-year growth rate in Macs of 10-15 percent worldwide, and even an anemic 2-4 percent growth in US sales, would still outperform the overall PC industry as a whole, which is facing the possibility of 10-15 percent declines in US sales. Analysts had been expecting this, however, so any unexpected upside from companies such as HP or Dell could result in positive stock jumps if the PC industry can exceed expectations.