Did you know that Apple still makes computers? It may be easy to forget that the company now best known for the iPhone (its top revenue generator), iPad and iPods has put tens of millions of Macintosh computers in American homes since 1984 and continues to do so.
But everything seems to become less cool as it pushes 30, and so Apple -- like other manufacturers -- needs to add some sex appeal to what was once its signature product, particularly the seemingly flagging MacBook line, to keep up sales in a world rapidly shifting to ultra-portable devices like tablets and super-capable smartphones.
Cheaper and Faster
The Cupertino, Calif.-based technology giant announced Wednesday that it was knocking $200 off the price of its 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display, which it calls the "highest-resolution notebook ever." The 128-gigabyte model now sells for $1,499, and the 256-GB model is $1,699. The 256-GB, 13-inch MacBook Air is also dropping by $100, to $1,399.
The price stays the same for the 15-inch models, but Apple is packing more power into them: a 2.4 GHz processor for the 256-GB model and a 2.7 GHz processor for the 512-GB model, which goes for $2,199. That's up from 2.3 GHz and 2.6 GHz processors, respectively.
Price reductions typically signal that Apple is about to introduce a successor line of products.
Overall Apple was third in U.S. computer sales in the fourth quarter of 2012, after Hewlett-Packard and Dell, with 12.3 percent of the market, up about 5 percent from the same quarter of 2011, according to Gartner.
But another firm, IDC Research, said Mac sales were essentially the same in that quarter as the 2011 fourth quarter and down sequentially from the third quarter. The NPD Group said sales of MacBooks dropped 6 percent during the holiday season, and overall Mac sales -- including MacBooks and desktops -- were down 22 percent in the last quarter of 2012, with 4.1 million sold, according to Apple.
"Yes, tablets are cutting into PC sales -- for Apple and everyone else," said consumer devices expert Avi Greengart of Current Analysis.
Given the phenomenal success of the iPad, we asked Greengart if he sees Apple eventually creating a device like Microsoft's Surface, which can be used as both tablet and laptop/netbook.
"I do not see a hybrid Mac/iPad on the immediate horizon," he replied. "Apple prefers to create separate products optimized for different usage scenarios. However, I can imagine a future in which Apple adds touch to the Mac, simply because Apple is teaching consumers to touch every screen in sight -- try getting a 3-year-old who grows up with an iPad NOT to touch your laptop screen.
"However, even if Apple did that, I would not expect the whole product to be convertible to a tablet, but just a different way of interacting with the user interface -- you'd interchangeably use a mouse, trackpad, or touchscreen depending on which method makes the most sense."
Investing in the U.S.
One way Apple is revving up interest in Macs is by slapping a "Made in the USA" label on some of them. As President Obama noted in his State of the Union Address Tuesday night (with Apple CEO Tim Cook in the audience), the company will soon resume making some computers here in a $100 million venture, though it remains to be seen which models and what kind of volume.
Still the most profitable company in America -- its $13.1 billion in earnings in the last quarter of 2012 outshone ExxonMobil, Microsoft, Pfizer and others -- Apple is under pressure to come up with The Next Big Thing to keep it on top of the consumer heap as rivals start to nip at its heels. Recent rumors have suggested a connected watch and an Apple TV beyond the set-top box it currently offers to move it beyond what Cook has called a "hobby" for the company rather than a major venture.