We've come to expect analysts and pundits to misunderstand Apple. More puzzling is when Apple misunderstands itself.
My three-week Road Trip of a Lifetime, driving all the way from Key West, FL to Palo Alto, was interrupted by a bout of pneumonia, low blood oxygen, paroxysmal cough and, most alarming, a loss of appetite. Thankfully, all indicators are looking good and I'm back walking Palo Alto's leafy streets.
The succession of wheel time and downtime gave me an opportunity to contemplate two recent controversies: Fred Wilson's prediction of Apple's imminent fall, and rumors of Apple's purchase of Beat Electronics. These are both manifestations of what I'll call, for lack of a better term, Misunderstanding Apple.
First, Fred Wilson. At the recent TechCrunch Disrupt conference, the successful and articulate venture investor predicted that by 2020 Apple will no longer hold the #1 position in the tech world. They won't even be in the top three. According to Wilson, Apple "doesn't think about things they way they need to think about things". Specifically, the company is "too rooted in hardware…[which] is increasingly becoming a commodity" and "Their stuff in the cloud is largely not good. I don't think they think about data and the cloud."
I'd be surprised by Wilson's facile, insight-free truisms, except this isn't the first time he's shown a blind spot when considering Apple. Wilson is famous for dumping his Apple shares at $91 in January 2009; AAPL is now at $590 or so. (He also sold Google, which closed at $528 on Friday, for a split-adjusted $160. Perhaps there's a difference between being a venture investor, an insider who watches and influences a young company, and an outsider subjected to forces and emotions outside of one's control.)
Calling Apple "too rooted in hardware" misunderstands the company. From its inception, Apple has been in one and only one business: personal computers (which, today, includes smartphones and tablets). Indeed, Apple's quarterly numbers show that the sale of personal computers makes up 87% of its revenue. Everything else that Apple does, from iTunes to the Apple Store, exists to make its smartphones, tablets, laptops, and desktops more useful, more pleasant. And this "everything else" includes the lovingly machined hardware of the MacBook Air and iPhone 5. If the supporting cast does its job well, the main acts will sell in larger numbers and at higher prices.
Customers don't buy Apple "hardware" in the same way a weekend carpenter buy nails at the friendly neighborhood hardware store. What Fred Wilson seems to miss is that hardware is more than an inert "thing" for Apple: It's a conduit to an entire ecosystem, and it can yield an enormous strategic advantage. One such example is the 64-bit A7 processor that took everyone by surprise: 64 bits. It's Nothing. You Don't Need It. And We'll Have It In 6 Months.
When the subject of commodization comes up, I invite people to look at the cars they see in the street. Are the likes of Audi, BMW, and Mercedes being commoditized? Do their owners only care that the wheels are black and round? Serendipitously, someone called "SubstrateUnderflow" answers the question in a comment on Wilson's blog:
"…when I look around at all the cars out there, from the high end models to the most utilitarian models, almost no one buys the base stripped versions. Key devices that are central to people's lives, comfort and utility have enough emotional SubstrateUndertow to sustain premium pricing."
The 30-year old Mac business and its healthy margins (about 25% versus HP's sub-5% for its PCs) shows that Apple has successfully avoided the commoditized race to the bottom that has plagued Wintel devices and is likely to accelerate for smartphones.
Wilson's criticism of Apple's "stuff in the cloud", on the other hand, carries some sting. As a user of Apple's products and services, I'm often disappointed with Apple's Cloud offerings. I find iMessage's quirks irritating, I see a lack of proper synchronization between iBooks on Macs and iDevices, and I'm still waiting for the Cloud version of iWorks to mature. But let's turn to Horace Dediu for a crisp summary of Apple's place in the Cloud:
"Not getting the cloud" means that in the last 12 months Apple obtained:
• 800 million iTunes users and
• an estimated 450 million iCloud users spending
• $3 billion/yr for end-user services plus
• $4.7 billion/yr for licensing and other income which includes
• more than $1 billion/yr paid by Google for traffic through Apple devices and
• $13 billion/yr in app transactions of which
• $9 billion/yr was paid to developers and
• $3.9 billion/yr was retained as operating budget and profit for the App Store.
• more than $1 billion/yr in Apple TV (aka Apple's Kindle) and video sales and
• $2.7 billion/yr in music download sales and
• $1 billion/yr in eBooks sold
In summary, iTunes, Software and Services has been growing between 30% and 40% for four years and is on its way to $30 billion/yr in transactions and sales for 2014.
Horace is right; Fred Wilson clearly hasn't done the numbers.
I was still on the road when I read about the rumored $3.2B acquisition of Beats Electronics, the company that began in the headphone business and then spawned a streaming music service.
I'm puzzled. If the rumors prove true, Apple may be guilty of misunderstanding itself.
The hardware side, headphones, is immaterial: The products may look good, but their audio quality is regularly panned. And the revenue, about $500M, doesn't move the needle.
The current wisdom is that Apple is mostly interested in Beats Music, the subscription streaming service. But that business isn't big, either; it has only attracted about 110K subscribers.
Maybe Apple is interested in Beats Music's technology and its vision for the future of streaming and music curation. I took the time to watch Walt Mossberg's interview of Jimmy Iovine in which the Beats co-founder gives hints about his plans. Iovine's AI-with-a-human-touch solution for delivering "what comes next" is technically vague — and vaguely dystopian ("we'll scrape your hard drive…we'll know where you are tomorrow"). I'm not convinced.
We also have rumors that Iovine and Dr. Dre, Beats' other co-founder, might become some kind of senior advisers to Apple management. Given what I've read about Dre's troubles with the Law, including a battery charge that landed him in jail, and an assault on a female that was settled out of court, I'm troubled. How will this play inside and outside Apple?
I don't see how such an acquisition would enhance Apple's business model or reputation.
That said, I hope I'm as wrong as I was when I thought the iPod was doomed to fail against commoditized, yes, that word, MP3 players. I hadn't seen iTunes behind the hardware, Cloud storage, the distribution and micro-payments infrastructure that would one day make the iPhone and App Phone.
I also see people whose intellect and motives I respect strongly support the rumored acquisition. Preeminent among them is Ben Thompson who, in his Stratechery blog, explores Why Apple Is Buying Beats. There, after positing personal computers might have reached their peak, Ben asks whether Apple is in fact reinventing itself as a kind of fashion house [emphasis mine]:
"Or are we witnessing a reinvention, into the sort of company that seeks to transcend computing, demoting technology to an essential ingredient of an aspirational brand that identifies its users as the truly with it? Is Apple becoming a fashion house? Think about it: you have Jony Ive as all-up head of design, the equivalent of a Tom Ford or Donatella Versace. There is the hire of Angela Ahrendts – why would she leave the CEO position of Burberry for a Senior VP role? You have an iPhone framed as an experience, not a product. And now you acquire an accessory maker differentiated almost completely by its brand, not its inherent technical quality."
And ponders at the Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't of such cultural change:
"Still, I can imagine the very thought of Apple positioning itself as a fashionable luxury brand is somewhat nauseating for many of my readers. It's an understandable reaction, and one I somewhat share. I worry that Apple is losing what makes Apple, Apple, especially that desire to make the power of computing accessible for normal people. But I also know that stasis means stagnation, and over the long-run, death."
To be continued…