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Revisiting the Apple Predicament – What's Next?

This article from the New Yorker brings out several good points about how Apple has lost some of its luster over the past months, but is still in good shape on fundamentals, although it did drop to below $400B market cap a few days ago. As we noted in December, Apple was coming under criticism for not being able to scale to demand for the latest iPhone launch and had several other hiccups to deal with, including questionable worker conditions in China and that its principal manufacturer, Foxconn, was rumored to have begun discussions to pick up the slack by investing in new factories in Brazil.

On the other side, Apple was in a bitter legal fight with Samsung, an important supplier and competitor (frienemy), and could not get an injunction to stick after a lengthy lawsuit. A recent ruling in the case reduced damages awarded to Apple from $1.05B to $600M and the appeals process is ongoing. Another cause for concern in our opinion was that Apple had slipped to 6th place in the China mobile segment (the world’s largest and fastest growing major market), where local manufacturers Lenovo and Huawei were eating up share regardless of how much manufacturing was being done by Apple locally. Samsung leads the handset market in China, underscoring another competitive issue – in Korea, Apple is considered the most prestigious handset and it sells very well in the market, while Samsung is considered a premium brand in China due to early and broad Consumer Electronics investments by the Korean conglomerates; Samsung chief among them. China also has affinity with Korea based on the hope they can emulate the incredible economic growth shown by Korea over the last 25 years.

It was looking a little grim, but as noted at the time, Apple’s considerable war chest of almost half a trillion dollars was adequate to stave off short and medium term threats, however, as the above article notes, competitors are closing the gap and have introduced increasingly sophisticated models, most notably Samsung, with its’ Galaxy S line, which is seen as the strongest challenger to Apple’s technical leadership. Samsung’s newest version, the S IV is expected to be introduced this month, and in an example of raising the bar, is rumored to include “eye scrolling” technology.

Device OS Market Share History

 

The Big Picture

Apple has always been in a market crowded with well-funded competitors. Keeping the OS and architecture closed had major implications to the development of Apple, as seen above Apple never gained more than a 10-12% share of the OS market during the 1980-2000 boom of the PC market, which eventually forced them to accept both MS Office and Intel into their products to remain viable and while keeping a stubbornly loyal following for computing devices. It was really when Steve Jobs applied his design genius to a series of personal mobile devices starting with the iPod, which displaced the Sony Walkman, that Apple found a large enough consumer base to really explode onto the scene. iPhone followed with several versions and then the iPad was introduced in 2010 and the rest is history as they say…

The point here is that Apple became the largest technology company by using high-quality, high aesthetic design principles that allowed it to survive in the PC segment and applying them to a new category in the market: coveted personal technology devices that displace Phone, PC, Camera, Voice Recorder, Wristwatch, GPS, Media Player, Personal Planner, and other single use devices/apps combined into a single, small footprint high-tech productivity tool.

While Apple survived the PC Wars, many (including myself), gave them little more than niche player status and came close to counting them out altogether. The current situation is similar in a couple ways as Apple looks forward, but instead of Microsoft and Intel the arch rivals are Google and Samsung. The chart shows how WinTel dominated the PC segment from 1985-2005, squeezing Apple to 10% of the market. Currently, the rise of Mobile Computing brings hundreds of millions of new devices into the market, passing the threshold where Smartphones eclipse PCs in both volume and installed base within the next few years, creating an Android camp and an Apple camp. This has many implications for Apple, a few of which include:

Innovation: Apple needs to continue to innovate at a rapid pace. In the first 20 years of the PC market, consumers accepted a very high churn rate in both hardware and software categories because each generation was substantially more efficient and productive than the previous one. To prevent a backlash from consumers, Apple and other players are going to have to make fundamental improvements like very accurate voice recognition and new visual interfaces, not just new form factors.

Price/Performance: demonstrated Price/Performance increases in the bandwidth, applications availability and usability for less money will drive higher adoption. Again, looking back to lessons in the Personal Computer market, there was a long period of time where $2,000 was what the market expected to pay for a quality PC, and new models came out at a regular pace with faster CPU cycles, larger memory and storage subsystems, expanded OS and App capabilities, while keeping within the price range. This worked for a long time, until the market became too crowded and some vendors, led by Dell, overhauled their cost structure by cutting out the channel, using direct sales and a more tightly integrated and automated supply chain, giving back to the consumer in the form of lower prices - then it was a race to the bottom. Remember when the hot new vendor was eMachines?. The de-facto premium price-point that has been set for iPhones and iPads in the market is ~$700 and to maintain it there will be pressure to continue delivering more for the same price or less, as the slew of competitors undercut Apple’s premium.

How Many Form Factors?Cutthroat Competition: All of these segments are characterized by intense competition, and with Google’s ownership of both Android and Motorola brands, things become even more interesting in the handset segment. As Apple goes it alone against the whole market, similar competitive issues will appear as they did with PCs; many companies adding applications and value to a standard operating system (Android), diffusing the R&D costs among a whole ecosystem of suppliers while Apple concentrates on staying ahead of everyone by themselves. Ensuring a steady flow of high quality finished goods coming from China, concentrated among a relatively small group of suppliers, could also become an issue as trade friction, consumer backlash and other uncontrollable variables come into play in the global supply chain and domestic market.

As Apple looks to expand into Televisions there is a potential to tap into another ~$120B market, however, this is not going to be like the introduction of the iPhone; the market is mature and growing slowly, ironically dampened by the move to Tablet computers and Internet content, with a lot of heavyweight competitors led by #1 vendor in the world - Samsung. And Google is also waiting in the wings. Déjà vu all over again. If Apple can pull a rabbit out they may be able to add enough value to demand a premium in flat screen TVs, but that is going to be much easier said than done, the brand only goes so far when displayed next to a similar product priced 20% less on the Walmart showroom - Apple's retail success is based on a much different formula. No 35% margins here without the same kind of fundamental improvements discussed above; interface improvements, simple but deep integration with other devices and something like a super green carbon footprint on top of the demonstrated product superiority. Maybe.

Again, Apple proved very resilient as a survivor in the PC wars and many underestimated their staying power. The Market Cap remains near $400B and they have room to maneuver, it will just get harder over time, as it does for every company that gets to the top.

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Thursday, 13 August 2020

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