Mac vs. PC All Over Again

on August 27, 2014
Reading Time: 5 minutes

The latest round of company quarterly financial results illuminate three trends in the device market:

  1. Apple continues to generate record profits largely due to growing iPhone sales (iPad sales are slowly declining, Macs are growing, iPod sales are mostly gone, and Apple’s services revenues are growing)
  2. Samsung’s profits are steadily declining (though from such a high level they remain quite high)
  3. Nobody else is making money at all ((Not consistently, or in the case of some Chinese companies who don’t break out device profitability, not verifiably))

Jan Dawson from JackDaw Research has a terrific chart illustrating the difference in margins that has made its way around Twitter (and here on Tech.pinions) a few times. To my eye, this looks like the PC market, all over again.

Screenshot 2014-08-07 09.46.57

I’m certainly not the first to point out the mobile market looks a lot like the PC market of 30 years ago; some financial analysts have been using this as part of an argument predicting Apple’s imminent collapse. Just as Apple lost the PC wars to a horizontal solution, Apple will lose the smartphone wars the same way. Apple apologists have responded the phone market is different: there are carrier subsidies, lock-in effects, or what have you.

Financial analysts aren’t dumb. The parallels are real. The phone market is turning into the PC market, only with Google taking Microsoft’s place as the OS provider. The similarities are striking. Apple redefined the market with a proprietary OS, innovative UI, and vertically integrated hardware. While it took a few years to catch up, the competition responded with a similar UI on an OS widely licensed to OEMs. In both PCs and phones, Apple targeted a narrow high end customer and lost the market share battle, while the competition aims wider and controls significantly higher market share. Apple monetizes its software by selling high margin hardware; OEM competitors fight each other to provide low margin commodities.

Screen Shot 2014-08-26 at 6.40.39 PM

There are also two interesting differences in the PC and smartphone eras: due to the way the smartphone market evolved, Google chose not to monetize the OS the way Microsoft did, instead monetizing services through advertising. The phone market is also different in size – it’s a lot larger than the PC market ever was.

The problem with analysts using these comparisons to predict Apple’s decline is they ignore the fact Apple won the PC wars. During the 1980s, Apple grew both revenues and profits. After a near death experience in the 1990s – more on this later – Apple reemerged as the most profitable PC vendor. If you count iPads along with Macs, it is now the largest PC vendor by unit sales, too. That is not to say there were no other winners in the PC market. Steve Jobs was correct when he said, “For Apple to win, Microsoft does not have to lose”. Microsoft also won the PC wars. As did Intel. At various points, IBM, Compaq, Dell, HP, and Lenovo have won battles, too (though some of them clearly lost the war).

What We Can Learn From History

The most crucial lessons from the parallels between the PC and smartphone markets are how 1) Apple should behave to successfully compete with Google, 2) the lessons Apple needs to learn from its near death experience during the PC era, and 3) the lessons today’s hardware OEMs – including Samsung – should take from PC OEMs.

1. Apple vs. Google
This one is really simple:

  1. Google does not have to lose for Apple to win. Steve Jobs’ anger towards Google was counterproductive. For that matter, Samsung does not have to lose for Apple to win. ((I think we’re seeing the application of this principle in Tim Cook’s détente with Samsung. Ironically, Jobs was able to get past his feud with Microsoft, but Samsung’s IP infringement was personal. For its part, Samsung is finally willing to compromise because it is realizing it cannot maintain its margins, and an expensive legal fight it can’t win is not worth pursuing.))

2. Lessons for Apple from the 1990’s
Apple lost its way in the 1990s when Microsoft caught up in user interface and Apple stopped innovating in both software and design. That impacted the Mac’s software ecosystem, ruined its premium value proposition, and forced Apple down market (which it tried to attack with a licensing strategy). Once Apple invested in a narrow range of high-design, premium products with regular software updates, sales and profits returned.

To win the smartphone market, Apple must continually refresh its software so its overall value proposition remains differentiated at the high end. However, software for smartphones goes well beyond the device capabilities and UI. It encompasses services and apps.

    1. Google excels in services; if Apple is to succeed long term, it will need to continually meet the “good enough” threshold on services. Given that requirement, the half-baked launch of Maps was a potentially franchise-destroying disaster. Apple has recovered from the worst of the Maps debacle, but it still has work to do on the services front. Apple next big challenge is creating a response to Google Now.
    1. Apple does not need to beat Google on services as long as Google extends most of its services to iOS. Google monetizes users, not Android. As long as Apple maintains a significant share of premium customers its advertisers want to reach, Google has to work with Apple.
    1. Apple excels in the app ecosystem, but Google is catching up. It is too early to predict whether this will keep Apple ahead, but the need to maintain an edge in the app ecosystem explains why Apple is opening up iOS 8 and giving developers more flexibility. It is also why Apple is investing in a new development language.
  1. Apple must continue to set the standard for design so consumers are willing to pay a premium for its hardware. Larger screen sizes and bezel-free designs are the only real holes in Apple’s approach; otherwise it’s doing a pretty good job.

Even if Apple pulls off this balancing act, it does not guarantee explosive growth, which is what Wall Street is looking for. However, if Apple does follow this path, it will maintain a stable, growing base of customers, apps, and assets it can use to attack new areas. The iPod and iTunes led to the iPhone which led to the iPad.

Lessons for OEMs competing with Apple and each other

There should be a market for premium Android phones, but with lots of OEMs targeting it, even vendors who can differentiate on design and hardware components will have lower margins than Apple. Margins don’t have to decline to zero, provided there is still enough value in differentiated component technologies or design. This is why Samsung’s insistence on sticking with durable, easy to manufacture, cheap plastic construction is so maddening. As the unique value of Samsung’s components has declined over time, Samsung should have been putting more emphasis on premium design and construction.

It may be possible to differentiate on software above Android, but few provide enough positive differentiation that consumers recognize and are willing to pay a premium for. Motorola, Meizu, and Xiaomi are the only ones who come close; LG is adding value by stripping out much of the excess it once had. It is worth noting carrier meddling can mess up even the best laid software plans; it requires a direct-to-consumer channel or extremely strong brand clout to build a singular software experience and get it on carrier shelves.

Below the premium tier, margins trend towards zero. Lenovo makes money in PCs in this environment by managing the supply chain and manufacturing. PC vendors were making money by preloading crapware; some smartphone vendors (and some carriers) are following suit. Another approach is to sell hardware at cost, and make money on ancillary products or services. Digital stickers work for messaging vendors, advertising supports television, and in-app purchases drive mobile game developers. Watch for variants on these approaches from hardware manufacturers. Amazon is trying to do this with its tablets, but not its phones where it tries to have its profits and sell you some cake, too. Xiaomi’s business model seems to be predicated on giving you a phone at cost, then selling you a stuffed animal.