In a very interesting move, Apple announced that they would invest in returning some production to the US. At first blush, this seems like a bold tactic which will certainly improve Apple’s brand reputation in the wake of long-standing criticism for moving skilled manufacturing jobs to China, where worker pay and conditions are bad enough to drive some to suicide. And as the number one technology company in the world it is also heartening to see some jobs come back home, but there are a few caveats:
The Apple MacBook is the top of the line notebook with a premium price point, out of reach for most small businesses unless there is strong justification, such as for professional designers and developers who need to pay double that of a similarly equipped Wintel device to do their work effectively. That share of the market has always been small relative to Wintel machines, both desktop and notebook. Apple manufactured Macs in the US until the mid-nineties, after most competitors had moved production offshore. The caveats include 1) whether this experiment will grow to the more strategic iPhone and iPad product lines, and obviously, 2) whether Apple can turn a profit that makes the decision stick after the first $100M is spent.
Apple cites the inability to find the level of skills and manufacturing equipment in the US to be able to turn out production rapidly and with high quality. No doubt Foxxconn, Apple’s Chinese production partner, who already operates some plants in the US, will be looking to expand operations here. They had issues ramping up production to meet demand for the new iPhone and there were hiccups, followed by reports of Foxxconn negotiating multi-billion dollar deals in Brazil, to manufacture there. Regardless of how that materializes, today’s announcement will dampen some criticism that would accompany the final press releases from Sao Paolo.
Enter the Dragon
Another reason this makes sense to us is that China’s technology vendors are on the rise – no surprise there. But consider that within 7 years of buying the ThinkPad brand and manufacturing rights, Lenovo has become the #1 PC vendor in the world in unit shipments, (#1 by Gartner, #2 by IDC) squeezing 10% out of the global share in a stagnant market in the last few years alone while jumping to 30% share in China, 3X the nearest competitor. It was also announced today by Reuters that Apple fell to #6 in the Chinese smartphone market, which is growing in leaps and bounds to 60M units per quarter, with intense domestic competition and Samsung leading the pack. Lenovo is number 2 in the smartphone market as well as having the overwhelming first place position in PCs mentioned earlier, #5 smartphone seller Huawei, is gobbling up global market share in the telecom equipment market at an alarming rate.
We have written several times about the rising competition from China in the hardware manufacturing end of the IT market, and of its’ growing importance as the second largest PC, and largest Smartphone market in the world, with a billion users and 60 million units sold per quarter. As shared with our readers in a September article about Internet adoption and managed economies, China and Korea have many similarities that make for a reasonable scenario of things to come. Take it from someone who lived 15 years in Asia and has been watching Korea for 30 – the voracious appetite for material wealth, pragmatic style of government and East Asian capitalism will leave no stone unturned. Take Samsung for example: between 1990 and now they have become the number one maker of TVs in the world, starting from scratch and displacing the Japanese faster than they displaced American manufacturers, #1 in memory chips and some other semiconductors, #1 in Smartphone handsets (almost double Apple in unit shipments), a global leadership position in screen technology, squeezing Sharp, Toshiba and others for the keys to the future standard, and a global frontrunner in CE and white goods. These guys are US Steel in their heyday. And they are a major supplier to Apple for the most important products. And the legal battles are not over yet, according to this CNET News video. They have Foxxconn on the left and Samsung on the right. With friends like these who needs enemies?
CNET on Samsung Apple Lawsuit.
Strategically Apple’s move is understandable, at least from the outside looking in. Steve Jobs’ genius for aesthetic design, usability and commitment to quality helped create the PC revolution, arguably the single most important technological advance aside from the Internet since the Industrial Revolution. It also got him ousted from Apple as decisions about long term architecture were made. Although Apple always had (and still has) a very loyal following in the computing arena, they did not gain more than 10-12% market share from 1980 to 2000. This meant that Apple had to drive enough margin to support R&D for operating systems, a proprietary microprocessor, end user applications and non-standard chassis and other components. By contrast, the rest of the PC market leveraged standards and Scale Economies as investments were diffused in the market. The Microsoft standard OS and a maturing suite of interoperable applications were the lynchpin of the ecosystem and resulted in hundreds of companies joining the competitive fray. White box and private label manufacturers sprang up everywhere, eventually producing branded competitors like Dell and Compaq who were selling practically as fast as they could produce. By 1996 Apple was being counted out by many analysts as an also-ran. Eventually in 1997, Jobs was brought back in to save the company, which was considered a very risky personal move at the time.
In his second stint as CEO, Jobs turned Apple around and helped solve a problem that almost put the recording industry into insolvency; how to make money in the music business when new technologies allowed free files to be distributed at will and pirated on a global scale. Apple introduced iTunes in conjunction with EMI, and solved the Digital Rights Management issue. Under Jobs they had to kowtow to Redmond and adopt compatible MS Office Application Suites, which were not interoperable to that point – no swapping files between Apple and Microsoft users, and move to an Intel architecture. Despite several earlier failures, such as the Newton, Apple achieved a breakout hit with the iPod, and iTunes began printing money. Next came the iPhone, which almost immediately become the third largest handset brand in the market, followed by iPad in 2010, and several versions of iPhones. The products have produced a ravenous worldwide customer base and made Apple the most valuable (tech) company in history with a half-trillion dollar war chest.
The point is that Apple’s meteoric rise is more a function of the transition to CE and Smartphones than its’ leadership in computing and now they are in a bind; they are stretching their existing supply chain, they rely on advanced manufacturing resources and skilled labor that have been developed offshore, their largest potential market (China) is controlled by arch-rival Samsung, with whom they are in a nasty legal battle and depend on for key components. Prepare to Repel Boarders.
Next Chapter in the Bits vs. Atoms Saga
Apple’s success with iTunes came as a result of a property of the Internet that is now at the root of their problem: value moves at the speed of light when it can be digitized, and even when that value is in the form of an optimized supply chain, there are physical limits imposed by materials and the movement of products that ultimately make manufacturing a challenging business. On one hand you have companies like Apple, who source, manufacture, sell and distribute 125 million smartphones, along with millions of other devices. On the other hand there are companies like Google, whose value can be delivered over a network, relying on increasingly large server farms and unfettered access to electricity, but with much less need for operational infrastructure. Cisco and Oracle are another example although not as stark. Huawei is exerting substantial pressure on US firms as a global competitor and causing Congressional sabre rattling, as we noted here. Telecom equipment has been a hardware-oriented business but is less at risk because of innovation toward software and network integration – moving toward bits and away from atoms, demonstrated by Cisco's recent alliance with Citrix. Earlier we discussed Lenovo, which has overtaken first Dell and now HP and is the global leader in PC unit shipments.
As noted, we think moving some manufacturing back to the US will bring some benefits, not least of which is the PR value of bringing some jobs back home. It is slightly diluted by the fact that production of the most important product lines will not be possible for some time to come and does not decrease reliance on Foxxconn or really help with the Samsung conundrum. However if the experiment succeeds and a profitable advanced manufacturing sector can be developed and others follow suit it will be a very good thing for all of us in the technology industry.