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Are PCs finally cutting into Apple's domination of the high end?

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Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

Microsoft claimed last month that “more people are switching from Macs to Surface than ever before,” following what the company described as “the disappointment of the new MacBook Pro.” As Microsoft continues to refuse to provide sales or shipment numbers, it’s impossible to fully quantify how well the company’s Surface line is actually doing against Apple’s range of Macs. However, some new sales figures from Apple and statements from Microsoft show that Apple’s usual dominance of the high end may be slipping, despite a long-awaited new MacBook Pro.

Microsoft CFO Amy Hood told Bloomberg last week that Windows PC makers took share from Apple at the high end of the PC market last quarter. Essentially, the claim is that high-priced Windows machines are beating Apple’s Mac line more often than ever before. Microsoft’s latest earnings included a surprise boost to Windows OEM revenue, up 5 percent year-over-year in a PC market that’s still struggling to stabilize. Surface revenue only dropped by 2 percent, which is surprisingly low given that Microsoft has not refreshed the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book significantly since their introduction in October 2015.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

The biggest sign of any change is usually Apple’s own Mac sales figures. The iPhone maker revealed yesterday that it sold nearly 5.4 million Macs in the recent quarter, up only 1 percent from the same period last year. Apple launched its new MacBook Pro in October, but Touch Bar models didn’t start shipping until later in November. Apple’s quarterly numbers only count sales up to December 31st, so shipment delays may have contributed to the small increase in Mac sales.

I say small increase because historically a new MacBook Pro has usually helped improve Apple's Mac sales significantly. The late 2013 model boosted overall Mac sales in its debut quarter by 19 percent year-over-year, the mid 2014 variant pushed sales by 21 percent, and even the recent 13- and 15-inch 2015 models both saw increases of around 10 percent in Mac sales in the separate quarters they debuted in. This modest 1 percent boost is unusual for an initial MacBook Pro quarter, especially one that was highly anticipated. Many professionals had been waiting years for a new MacBook Pro, but it has been poorly received by some due to the high price, a lack of ports, and battery life concerns.

MacBook Pro with Touch Bar Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

Despite Mac sales barely growing this quarter, Apple still set all-time revenue records for the Mac. The average selling price of a Mac has soared to $1,348, up from $1,270 in the same quarter last year. That jump shows that the new MacBook Pro has had an effect, but it's likely because Apple raised the price of its laptops, especially internationally.

Microsoft and its top PC partners could be benefiting from Apple’s MacBook Pro launch. PC sales have now declined for 5 years in a row, with IDC putting year-over-year losses at 1.5 percent, and Gartner claiming shipments have dropped by 3.7 percent. Despite this, it's Lenovo, HP, Dell, and Apple that are all grabbing market share from smaller PC makers that are struggling. All of those top PC makers compete with Apple at the high end, and they're all still managing to sell more machines overall.

If Microsoft's claims are accurate, then it's an unusual position for the PC industry. The quality of hardware and even the Windows 10 software have greatly improved over the past year. While many would have previously recommended a MacBook Air, the alternatives are now usually far better, even if there's no single perfect laptop anymore. That underlines Microsoft's work with the Surface and its PC makers, but it's also the result of Apple's mixed approach to non-smartphone computing.

Apple really wants you to believe the iPad Pro is a full computer, but sales of the iPad (down 19 percent year-over-year) don’t back that claim up yet. With the debut of the MacBook Pro, and a lack of other Mac hardware, many fans have assumed Apple isn’t committed to MacOS hardware anymore. If Apple really doesn't have any big plans for the Mac this year, then it's easy to see how PCs could cut into the company's domination of the high end. The current quarter will give us a better understanding of Mac sales and the MacBook Pro, and I can't imagine Apple will let PCs take over the high end without a fight. That means better laptops and PCs for all of us, and that's something to look forward to in 2017.