"The Death of the PC"

No, I didn’t say that. Daniel Eran, in a post “Can Apple Take Microsoft in the Battle for the Desktop?” at his blog Roughly Drafted, did (it’s a heading to one of the sections of the piece).

A few days ago I posted “The Sun is Setting on Microsoft,” and got a comment that, along with directing obscenities at one of the writers I quoted, said I was lying when I reported that I knew people who planned to switch to Mac once their PCs needed to be replaced (for example, one person has already changed his household computers, his own business PC is the last to go).

Why is this so hard to believe? Walter Mossberg, the Wall Street Journal’s well regarded technology editor, has been saying for the last year or two that anyone buying a new computer should seriously think about getting a Mac. He has also said that Macs are a better deal on a price/performance basis. That’s a strong endorsement from someone who has no axe to grind, and until recently, had been a staunch Microsoft loyalist.

This article from Eran takes the argument one step further, and cites a lot of data. The piece is long (I’ve spared you a lot of the computer industry history) but well done. He argues that Microsoft is making the same mistakes that Apple made in the early to mid 1990s, most important in letting its market dominance go to its head and neglecting product development as a result. Further (and this is the interesting bit) he shows that Apple has been targeting the most profitable parts of the market, such as high-performance, high end desktops, and laptops. When you look at Apple’s profit margins, they are considerably higher of other computer makers.

Now of course, this isn’t an apples to apples comparison (no pun intended) since the Apple results include iPod and iTunes sales, and those (certainly iTunes) are probably higher margin than the computer business. Dell is really a hardware company, and so doesn’t have the higher margins of software (remember, the OS is bundled into the Mac). But the comparison to HP has some merit, since HP also has some very high margin businesses (printer ink and corporate computer consulting).

He does go overboard on some of his comments (“the imminent goring of Windows Mobile by the iPhone” although I for one do think the iPhone will do very well), his conclusions are reasonable (and do not depend on his occasional bits of hyperbole!).

I’d be delighted to hear any reasonable comments on or objections to Eran’s observations, but mere flames are not acceptable. There are plenty of usenet groups for that. Slashdot also picked up on Eran’s piece, so you can find a lot of heated chat there.

From Eran:

Some analysts are nostalgic for the days when they could appear intelligent merely by gushing about everything from Microsoft. They felt safe in recommending everything the company released, knowing that there were no real alternatives, and that anything the company could deliver would more or less have to be purchased.

All their advice and analysis helped to create the general illusion that Microsoft was divinely fated to succeed, and that no rival could ever hope to challenge the company. That illusion helped to reinforce the real power wielded by Microsoft as the dominant vendor of PC desktop operating systems.

Maintaining that illusion was as important to Microsoft as a properly running propaganda machine is to a banana republic dictator. As power begins to falter, maintaining an illusion of strength becomes increasingly important.

Ironically, the desperate measures that are frequently taken to sustain such an illusion often serve to distract from the real problems that need to be fixed and subsequently cause greater damage.

The Ghost of Past Failures
Microsoft certainly isn’t the first tech company to stumble in a grand way. Apple fell from its position as a leader in the tech industry in the 80s to being “hopelessly beleaguered” within a decade.

In Apple’s case, the company began making serious mistakes during a decade of limited competition leading up to 1995. Once a real competitor appeared, Apple was not only also woefully unprepared for the challenge, but also stumbling in the delivery of its own plans.

Had Windows 95 never arrived, Apple would still have had plenty to worry about; its future plans were uncertain, its product strategies were unfocused, and its System 7 software had grown obsolete….

[T]here has been one CEO of Microsoft since 1984: Steve Ballmer….

That means Ballmer really has nobody to blame for the problems Microsoft is now experiencing. Some of those problems are very much like Sculley’s Apple under the direction of Gassée: a reliance on high prices and low product innovation to stretch the company’s existing, threadbare assets while arrogantly ignoring the competition.

Competition Makes Companies Stronger
Just like Apple in 1990, Microsoft appeared untouchable in 2000. In reality however, both companies had really been softened by the lack of strong competition, and were so intoxicated by the praise of market analysts that they ignored brewing threats that were soon to develop into formidable rivals….

Apple also didn’t count on Microsoft offering much of a threat, since the company’s Windows product had been an embarrassing joke until 1990, and was still laughably behind.

Apple wasn’t prepared for Microsoft’s Windows 95, followed by its four paid updates that were released over the next five years. That lack of preparedness, exacerbated by poor governance, lead to major troubles for Apple within just a few years.

The analysts that had previously celebrated the company were quick to turn on it, and discount every effort the company made to recover. Increasingly, analysts compared Apple to Microsoft–a very different company with an entirely different business plan.

The Turning of Tables
In 2000, Microsoft Windows was still a poor product, but it had replaced DOS on hundreds of millions of PCs, and was strong competition to the ten year old operating system that Apple was still trying to sell.

When Windows 2000 shipped, Apple’s efforts to sell Mac OS 9 and its delayed attempts to deliver Mac OS X similarly appeared laughably behind the times.

It was Microsoft that wasn’t ready when Mac OS X Jaguar was delivered in 2002; it offered many of the key features intended for Microsoft’s Longhorn, expected in 2003.

Apple then rapidly delivered Panther in 2003, Tiger in 2005, and then moved Tiger to Intel in 2006. Meanwhile, Longhorn hadn’t gone anywhere but back to the drawing board.

Now that Windows Vista has finally shipped, critics are panning it as being an overpriced, unnecessary upgrade. Customers who have been waiting for Vista to ship have taken the opportunity to investigate the Mac, which not only offers a better product now than Vista, but also promises a further leap beyond Vista later this year with the release of Mac OS X Leopard.

This All Happened Before
Ballmer’s incredulous confusion as to why Vista upgrades are not taking off sounds eerily similar to how Apple’s executives refused to acknowledge the threat of Windows 95 as Mac sales slowed.

Ballmer has repeatedly dismissed Apple as a competitor, recently stating, “Remember, when you’re the little tiny niche guy who owns about 2 percent of the worldwide market, you can be cute one time and it helps you grow.”

That was his brilliant response when asked by BusinessWeek about Apple’s high profile ad campaign calling attention to the security and reliability problems in Windows in comparison to the Mac.

Back in the mid 90s, it was Ballmer’s Windows 95 getting all the attention, while Apple’s Copland and Taligent projects fell apart. Apple revealed that it really had no alternative plans and started looking.

After finally delivering the disappointing Vista–which is regularly compared to Apple’s two year old Mac OS X Tiger–Microsoft has yet to admit any mistep. Instead, it talks about nebulous plans for the next version of Windows, which might be delivered in a few years.

Microsoft avoids direct comparisons with Apple and pretends there is no competition it needs to answer.

A Painful Vistula
Many of the pillars promised for Longhorn were stripped from Vista in order to have something to ship four years after it was originally promised. Even so, reviewers have described Vista as “beta quality” and recommend waiting on Vista until Microsoft ships its first service pack.

Many companies have put off buying Vista entirely. The US Federal Department of Transportation has put an indefinite moratorium on purchases of both Windows Vista and Office 2007, stating in a memo:

…there appears to be no compelling technical or business case for upgrading to these new Microsoft software products. Furthermore, there appears to be specific reasons not to upgrade.

As PC sales continue through the year, Microsoft will be able to claim that an increasing number of users are “buying Vista,” which ships with new PCs. However, many businesses are buying new PCs and installing their own software images, commonly Windows 2000. Some have only recently moved to the six year old Windows XP.

When Apple reports additional sales of Macs, it actually means more active users of the latest Mac OS X….

A Better Product Mix
Windows enthusiasts like to recount Apple’s long static 2% share of the worldwide market for all computer systems. However, Apple is no Dell or HP. Apple sells systems targeted at profitable portions of the PC market:

higher end Mac Pro workstations and Mac Book Pro laptops for creative professionals
complete, simple iMac, MacBook and Mac mini systems for consumers
entry and mid level workgroup servers and RAID units

Conspicuously missing from that lineup is anything like the volume loss leader PCs sold by HP, Dell, and no-name PC makers: the $600 systems that are stripped down to include just the core components needed to run Windows.

Those boxes offer scant profits, so they come with minimal support and are packed with adware and vendor junk that attempts to sign up users for additional security, anti-virus, and other services….

The Death of the PC
Consumers are increasingly interested in laptops, where differences in quality are more obvious.

“In the U.S. market, the focus continues to be on the transition from desktops to notebooks, with notebook growth being the sole bright spot while desktop shipments continued to decline.” – Bob O’Donnell, IDC, Oct 2006.

….Consumers are willing to pay more for better laptop hardware because of its perceived value and potential for resale. Vista is non-returnable, non-transferable, and has zero resale value. It should be no surprise that there is little consumer demand for paying hundreds of dollars for such a software upgrade.

That’s forcing Microsoft to push more activation restrictions in Windows Vista, killing the same pirate market that has helped prop up the Windows monopoly. While Microsoft struggles to force its user base to pay for a half-baked upgrade, Apple is finding lots of new customers willing to pay for premium hardware.

The Cream of the Market
Microsoft makes no premium from sales of higher quality PC hardware; it supports HP and Dell in their crusade to profit from selling more units of e-waste more often.

Overall market share numbers capture the vast scale of PC disposability, but do not reflect the product profitability that comes from building a better quality product.

While Apple is cited by Gartner and IDC as selling around 5% of all the computers in the US, it isn’t obvious that Apple’s 5% share is the cream of the market; it’s actually worth more than the same or larger percentage shares held by rivals.

There were 9.8 million Macs sold in the last two years, up from 6.2 million in the previous two year period. Those numbers don’t compare with the stunning volume of PCs shipped by HP and Dell–which each sold 38 million PCs in 2006 alone–but Apple’s profits do.

In the forth quarter of last year, HP and Dell combined sold 10 times as many PCs as Apple in the US, earned 5.5 times as much revenue as Apple, but together only ended up with 2.2 times as much net income as Apple.

In other words, Apple earned nearly half as much net income with its 5% share the market as HP and Dell together, with their combined 55% share of the US PC market: $1 billion for Apple vs $2.2 billion for HP and Dell together!

Adding in third place PC maker Gateway makes things look even better for Apple, because Gateway actually lost money all year, despite shipping more PCs than Apple and capturing a larger percentage of market share.

A large chunk of Apple’s profitability comes from the iPod and other consumer electronics. Those sales are increasingly directing consumers to the Mac, and will help float the company through downturns in PC sales….

Being independent from Microsoft actually helps Apple tremendously; the rest of the industry’s reliance on Microsoft hamstrings them from effectively competing with Apple….

The End of a Monopoly
Combined with the dominance of the iPod over devices using Microsoft’s PlaysForSure, the imminent goring of Windows Mobile by the iPhone, and the shift of support across the industry from Windows to Linux in servers, the days of Microsoft’s monopolistic grip on the desktop are winding down.

Apple doesn’t have to take a majority share of the desktop market to win, it only needs to take the most valuable segments of the marketr, nimbler, and less expensive rivals….

Is Apple big enough?
One remaining bit of illusion is that Apple simply can’t compare to the heavyweights that control the industry because of its “small market share.” A comparison of Apple’s market capitalization–the value of the company assigned by investors in the market–helps to explain why Apple can’t be ignored.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Anonymous

    “In the forth quarter of last year, HP and Dell combined sold 10 times as many PCs as Apple in the US, earned 5.5 times as much revenue as Apple, but together only ended up with 2.2 times as much net income as Apple.”

    The comparison has no merit. In the quarter, sales of personal computer and server products excluding services, software and peripherals represented 75% of total net sales at Dell, 50% at HP and only 34% at Apple. Apple’s revenue and net income were boosted by sales of 21 million iPods.

    You don’t need to cheat to prove that Apple’s share is the cream of the market, take a look at the average selling price. It’s obvious, it’s not even news.







  2. Yves Smith

    Thanks for providing additional data, but I am a little surprised at the use of the word “cheat.” If you look at the first few paragraphs, the post clearly mentions that the Apple, HP and Dell profit figures are not comparable by virtue of the fact that they participate in businesses other than desktop computers. I nevertheless left in the information that you found misleading (from Eran) because that section showed that the difference in bottom line among the three companies was considerably different than the difference in revenues. That’s relevant because one of the charges Microsoft often makes is that Apple is small (in computing market share) and by implication irrelevant. The net profit figures, and Apple’s position in newer, more rapidly growing businesses, tells another story.

  3. Anonymous

    “the post clearly mentions that the Apple, HP and Dell profit figures are not comparable by virtue of the fact that they participate in businesses other than desktop computers.”

    It’s explicitly mentioned, but that didn’t stop him. The word count is just under 3,000, the reader will forget the fine print before the end of the article. Without links it’s difficult to find the source for the figures, then you must break out the data by yourself, it’s a tad bit overwhelming. Most people won’t take all the necessary steps to verify the information.

    “one of the charges Microsoft often makes is that Apple is small (in computing market share) and by implication irrelevant. The net profit figures, and Apple’s position in newer, more rapidly growing businesses, tells another story.”

    That’s true, thanks to the iPod. And the iPod makes Microsoft less relevant outside of the Windows/Office stronghold. MS will have a very hard time in the music business, and talking of new businesses the Xbox is not doing so well either.

    On the Mac side, Apple is not solely focused on unit share. When asked about pricing more aggressively to accelerate Mac growth, Tim Cook recently answered that the Mac is outgrowing the market, thus there is “no reason to change.” Apple’s share is still relatively small, even in terms of revenue. That doesn’t make Apple irrelevant but asserting that “the days of Microsoft’s monopolistic grip on the desktop are winding down” is not supported by evidence. Not even mentioning that nowadays the Mac will help sell more copies of Windows.

Comments are closed.