A few years ago, folks in tech used to worry that all the profits in the PC industry were being scarfed up by Microsoft and Intel and that the crumbs left to PC makers would be insufficient to fund any innovation. For companies not named Apple, those were the good old days.
Apple’s blowout December quarter was stunning enough viewed in isolation. But it is even more striking in comparison to the rest of the industry. Apple’s revenues of $46.2 billion blew past Hewlett-Packard’s $32.3 billion to make it the industry leader by sales. But the real story is profits. Apple’s net of $13.1 billion was just a hair less than the earnings of Microsoft, Intel, HP, and Dell combined.
For a little historical perspective, in 2006, Apple earned just under $2 billion on sales of $19 billion for the entire year. Microsoft and Intel combines for sales of $80 billion and profits of $18 billion. (M.G. Siegler at TechCrunch has a host of other Apple-industry comparisons.)
Apple’s growth and stunning profitability is obviously wonderful news for the company and its shareholders. And there are no signs that its remarkable run is over. The growth rate of the December quarter is unsustainable, but that is a reflection of the strength of one three-month period, not an indication of any weakness.
But the concentration of the tech industry’s profitability in one company is a potential problem for the industry as a whole. Apple is a wonderfully innovative company that has, year after year, come out with the most interesting products in tech. And the iPhone and iPad have spawned a whole ecosystem of successful third-party products.
Innovation, especially in hardware, requires talent, imagination–and money. Apple’s cash hoard–by now over $100 billion–allows it to do things that competitors cannot even think about.
It’s not a healthy situation to have all the innovation coming from one company, no matter how brilliant. But the razor-thin margins of Apple’s competitors make risk taking difficult. Consider the sad case of HP and the TouchPad. Executives of HP’s Personal Systems Group saw webOS and the TouchPad as a way to both challenge Apple and to free the company from the domination of Microsoft. PSG chief Todd Bradley saw this as a fight of “years, not months.” But looking at startup costs in the billions and a lack of instant success, HP’s top management got cold feet and killed the project before it had a chance. A lot of this had to do with HP’s tumultuous internal politics, but the fact that the company earns eight cents on every dollar of revenue while Apple nets 29 cents has to have been an important factor in its skittishness. The problem is the vicious cycle, in which a financial squeeze cripples innovation which damages the prospects for growth.
It’s hard to see how this situation changes anytime soon. Perhaps Google, which has margins even better than Apple’s though it is a much smaller company, can use some of its profits to turn stodgy Motorola Mobility into an innovation engine, assuming that it completes its planned purchase. Maybe the partnership of Nokia and Microsoft will produce something wonderful. But for the foreseeable future, expect Apple to expand its dominance.