The Apple Problem

Bob O'Donnell / January 28th, 2014

Apple’s most recent quarterly earnings, as usual, have generated an enormous amount of press, a staggering amount of pontificating and lots of interesting questions. On the one hand, the initial after hours market reaction has been swift and to the point: pushing the shares down over 8% at one point last evening—the equivalent of a staggering $40 billion in market value. Apple apologists, on the other hand, are equally quick to point out the incredibly important role that the company and its products continue to play by highlighting lifetime sales, device usage, ecosystem health and other interesting, if not always particularly relevant, factoids. The company itself points out that the underlying health of the business is better than the numbers might first suggest.

Of course, the numbers themselves are, by any objective measure, not bad at all. The highest iPhone and iPad sales ever, a 19% increase in both Mac sales and iTunes store revenue is something that most companies would be incredibly happy to have. But, this is Apple and when it comes to Apple, all bets are off—whether you’re on the side trying to push them up or the one trying to bring them down (interestingly, there don’t seem to be a lot of people in the middle on this one…). I’ve argued for a while that, as far as the market goes, Apple got treated unfairly on its wild ride up and equally unfairly on its big slide down a year or so back.

The real issue here—as it often is with Wall Street—is about expectations. Apple was expected to do better on iPhone sales and was certainly expected to give higher guidance for next quarter, especially after the potentially ground-breaking deal with China Mobile. (Remember: with stock prices it’s virtually never about the absolute numbers, it’s about how things do against what “the street” wanted to see.)  

From the time I first saw them at the launch event in Cupertino, the Easter Egg-like pastel colors of the 5C struck me as something that would have limited appeal.”

But beyond these expectations, there clearly were some challenges with Apple’s iPhone numbers—specifically, one problem: the 5C. Though no details were given, it’s clear that the company had more 5Cs than they needed and not enough 5Ss. As I watched my Twitter feed during the earnings call I saw lots of people offering their own views as to why this may be the case—including the lack of new functionality, pricing too close to the 5S and so on—but no one even mentioned what seems to me, at least, to be blatantly obvious: it was the colors of the phones themselves. From the time I first saw them at the launch event in Cupertino, the Easter Egg-like pastel colors of the 5C struck me as something that would have limited appeal. I don’t claim to be a color expert of any sort, but heck, I would’ve even preferred to see a return of Bondi Blue.

But the challenges that Apple faces go well beyond colors. Though Apple loyalists like to point out that market share doesn’t matter or isn’t relevant anymore (I guess it only matters when you’re winning—interesting how things get turned around over time…), the truth is, market share does matter. It may not matter from a global total smartphone or tablet perspective, but it certainly does when you start to break things down by countries by demographics or by other important metrics. In this regards, several critical trends are conspiring to create some strong headwinds for Apple. First, most of the growth in both the tablet and smartphone markets over the next few years is going to be in developing regions where incomes are lower, subsidies from telcos are much less common, smartphone lifetimes are expected to be longer and local domestic brands still have a lot more influence than large multinational brands. (High-end smartphones are saturated here in the US and Western Europe, so it wasn’t terribly surprising to hear Apple say that North American sales were down in the quarter.) The critical test here will be how the iPhone fares with even the upper middle class in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities in China. Given the strong preference for local brands like Huawei, ZTE, Lenovo and CoolPad, as well as the strong in interest in “phablet”-size phones over there, this could be a serious challenge. Presuming the iPhone 6 will have a larger screen, this challenge could be somewhat offset later in the year, but the company’s limited expectations for their fiscal Q2 could reflect this concern in the short term. Second, the overall tablet market is starting to slow and it’s not inconceivable that within 5 years, tablets will face some of the same sales challenges that PCs have had to deal with over the last few years. The cannibalization of tablets by “phablets” may even exacerbate this problem. After a tough drop over the last several years Apple’s share has begun to stabilize in tablets, but the company can’t count on the high-growth curve for the overall category that it may have in the past.

Of course, most of these challenges are going to also impact Apple’s competitors in the higher-end device space—they aren’t unique to Apple. Plus, Apple has proven over and over again that they’re able to innovate in way that its competitors can only dream about. So, don’t get me wrong, I’m not worried about Apple’s long-term fate in the least. However, that doesn’t mean we won’t see a bumpy road over the next few quarters and that’s an Apple problem that has to be given serious thought.

Bob O'Donnell

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.
  • klahanas

    I’m not an investor, so I have no skin in this game, but expectations and perceptions cut both ways. Didn’t expectations raise the stock price to $700? An angry pitbull is a safety feature when on a leash, but should it turn around…

    • Bob O’Donnell

      Yes, absolutely. My point was that there seemed to be a fair bit of irrational exuberance both on the climb up and on the slide down few people seem to be able to evaluate Apple on a purely objective basis.

      • TheEternalEmperor

        Who would be more objective? An Apple apologist or an Apple loyalist?

        • Bob O’Donnell

          Not to be difficult, but neither. I would argue Apple apologists and loyalist are subtle sub-groups within the same basic camp….

          • TheEternalEmperor

            What’s the difference between a apologist and loyalist?

          • klahanas

            The rpm’s on their fan! 🙂

          • TheEternalEmperor

            Then the cultist must be redlining.

  • jfutral

    Maybe they branded the 5C too narrowly, “for the colourful”. I see the 5C in the hands of a lot of artists. This is not a huge demographic. I see the 5S in the hands of a lot of arts administrators, aka, business types, almost no 5Cs.


  • Space Gorilla

    “Though Apple loyalists like to point out that market share doesn’t matter or isn’t relevant anymore (I guess it only matters when you’re winning—interesting how things get turned around over time”

    That’s kind of an odd thing to write, since Apple never even came close to winning on market share with the iPhone. Of course total market share has always been a poor metric which leads to poor analysis. If we look at the segments that Apple operates in, they do quite well.

    • Bob O’Donnell

      That particular comment was more focused around iPad than iPhone. As for the value of market share, it is only one of many metrics that are used to look at a company’s performance, and I would agree that total market share is of questionable value. However, as I pointed out, when you start looking at specific markets and segments, I would argue it becomes increasingly important. Apple is doing quite well in the markets it operates in, but my point is basically that those markets are getting saturated and in the remaining non-saturated markets, which the company is clearly now reaching into, they do face some potential headwinds.

      • Space Gorilla

        At some point Apple growth has to slow dramatically. After all, how big can they possibly get? I wouldn’t want Apple to try to serve a majority of the market, that would probably be a disaster (if it is even possible), and they don’t need to. Apple is steadily marching towards operating a platform with a billion users (they’re already over the half billion mark). At some point soon we have to realize/admit that Apple has built an incredibly successful platform that is large enough to sustain itself for a long, long time. The doom and gloom days are over, and yet even after a record quarter I see all kinds of stories along these lines. Wall Street is so disconnected from reality.

        • Kizedek

          Exactly. What I think people fail to realize is that “Android” can only loosely be called a “platform”. As Horace Dediu points out sometimes, I believe: it’s more like a specification.

          It certainly isn’t serving its user base like iOS and Apple are. Google isn’t serving everyone who uses Android.

          So, you have a bunch of OEMs trying (apparently) to serve their customers. Maybe Samsung has a larger user base than Apple’s, I don’t know. No-one else is close. Would anyone argue that Samsung is serving its customers particularly well, or are they just spending it all on marketing?

          • Space Gorilla

            I doubt very much that Samsung has more users than Apple, when measured as an engaged platform/ecosystem. When measured by raw devices, perhaps, but that misses the point. I know you understand that, but many people don’t grok the difference.

          • Kizedek

            Good point to remember. Active devices as ratio of devices sold is a whole other area to look into, no doubt favoring Apple. My daughter uses a 3GS and I use a 4S, both still perfectly functioning. Four or five Android devices might have come and gone during the life of one Apple product.

      • isitjustme

        Er, Apple is not competing in the lower end of the market.

        If it the lower end or the cheap end of the market you are referring to.

        One more thing if you think the world has run out of people getting rich then you are kind of myopic like the financial analysts.

        Are you one too?

  • FalKirk

    Does total market share matter to Apple? No. Having the market share that matters, does.

    • klahanas

      I thought that only making the best possible products and having the most happy customers did.

      • TheEternalEmperor

        Indeed. And that’s how you get it.

  • I wrote back in September that the iPhone 5c was doomed.

    That said, I think it’s not a fall as much as a small misstep, possibly a learning experience. By leaving out important hardware (e.g. A7) the 5c was clearly revealed as the ‘minor’ iPhone — yet at a still rather substantial price. That was a bad compromise by Apple. I don’t expect any long-term harm from it.
    I will say I’ve long been struck by the resilience of iPad sales. They keep going and going…

    • Chris Marriott

      Brian, you’re starting to sound like some other pundits I don’t pay attention to. The iPhone 5C isn’t ‘doomed’ as you put it. Apple sold 51 million iPhones and didn’t get the production mix right. You’ll have to work on defining ‘bad’ for me to look at the numbers and write statements like this off. I know you understand Apple’s fundamentals, but seriously – you’re sounding like a lot of others who are piling bad press on top of good news.

      • One of the reasons I love Apple products is because Apple understands what they are great at. To me, the 5c needlessly compromised Apple’s typically above-average standards. They know they can do better. I expect it off the market within a few months. That said, my bad for the “doom” expression — I was writing a short comment. We should all be so doomed.

        • Chris Marriott

          Indeed. Wall St. analysts and media pundits don’t seem to understand that Apple doesn’t care about them and never has. They can afford not to and that’s nothing new. What Wall St. and the media don’t seem to grasp is that any company on the planet would trade their problems for Apple’s. The rabble rabble has reached a point of hysteria while Apple’s competitors get a pass for reporting poor financials. Even worse, Apple’s competitors get a pass for failing to compete and because of that, Wall St. and the media is blind to certain trends – like the fact Samsung will forfeit it’s share of the premium market. It’s already begun as Samsung enters its second crisis of design with nobody to copy a second time. That’s real news. Meanwhile, all we’re hearing about is how Apple’s doomed because it sold 51 million phones and made more money than God.

          • TheEternalEmperor

            Only Nixon could go the China and only Apple could experience a percentage drop larger than Samsung after selling more product and making more money than ever.

            [update] from money cnn: Yahoo rises 2% as it beats expectations, but SALES and PROFITS slide. What a world…

        • TheEternalEmperor

          I know people with the 5C. Not a complaint among them. That phone was not created for the same market as the 5S.

          Let’s put it this way, underestimating how good the 5S is != 5C is a doomed(or a dud). The phone looks nice, has all the internals of the 5 and sells for $49.
          It’s only flaw is that it is up against…wait for it, the 5S.

          Perhaps it’s been loss in the news, but wasn’t the 5C he second or third phone in all the major carriers in the US? Anyone who actually thought that the 5C was going to be one of those “free with newspaper super-cheap Android phones” should probably STOP writing analysis about Apple.

          • Space Gorilla

            Yep. My preference is the 5C, and that’s what my teenage daughter got as well. We dig the look and feel of it, and only my wife needs the 5S, since she basically uses the iPhone as a computer in her pocket to run the family/household. I’m interested to see where Apple goes with the iPhone line of products. I would be surprised if the 5C was dropped, it seems like a good iPod Touch replacement.

        • jfutral

          Hey, at least my friends with their 5c don’t have to worry about the back glass breaking, even if it is only 1/2 inch tall.

          There is a manufacturing advantage to the bottom end of the iPhone line transitioning to the 5c instead of the old 4s, manufacturing can take advantage of similar parts and construction just as they were able to shift from 5c to 5s. That would have been impossible with a 4s.

          I believe the 5c will continue life as the entry level iPhone with minor if any modifications. Sales volume seems to infer similar levels.


    • Space Gorilla

      Long term, the iPad is a more important product.

      • I agree. Phones have been good enough for some time. A slightly larger screen is not enough to move the needle and the IPad has FaceTime.

        • Space Gorilla

          I’m thinking more about the future of computing. And when I Iook at sales numbers, the iPad broke 20 million units sold in a quarter in its third year. It took the iPhone five years to do that. The iPad broke 70 million units sold in a year in its fourth year. It took the iPhone five years to do that. The iPad is a sneaky little product.

  • Anders CT

    After a period of exceptional succes any companys stock will tank. That is how stockmarkets work.

  • aardman

    The markets for iPhone and iPad are rapidly maturing. Apple knows this and I have no doubt that the reported 100 engineers and Paul Deneve and Bob Mansfield and those designers hired from Nike and few other folks and possibly Angela Ahrendts when she comes on board are hard at work on the next big thing at Apple which will again propel the stock price upwards. What that next big thing is, I have no idea. I can speculate, but I really don’t know. None of us do.

    If you don’t believe this, time to sell AAPL or go short in a big way. If you do, do the opposite. More than with any other companies, holding AAPL is a matter of faith not evidence.

  • Ralph C

    Hey Bob, good article I have one quibble with it though. I think you’re dead wrong about the colors. The colors that apple uses for its 5c line are very fashionable now a days as it was in the 80’s. Fashion I’m sure you know is very cyclical what’s was hot back then is hot now. Proof of case, look at the basketball and running shoes that are popular now or just plain regular nikes. The color ways that are fashionable are the neon colors the same exact colors that the 5c’s are painted in. Just take a peak at a site like hypebeast.

    It also doesn’t stop there if you ever go to the gym you see many neon green or neon orange and pink shoes. These are worn by men and women alike. Even Asics a very run centric brand, that is a “runners” running shoe has begun using those color ways. Also if you live in area where people like to run just check the shoes and also the tops of any young runner neon colors abound from every athletic brand. I say young but it is not limited to the young. I only use young because I believe the 5c line was made specifically with young people in mind.

    Apple knows fashion so they weren’t wrong with the colors, what seems to be the problem, or what I got for the earnings call was that Tim and the gang underestimated how popular the 5s was going to be. More specifically the new touch ID feature. People proved they would rather spend more money on the higher end 5s than the lower priced 5c and touch ID was a major incentive.

  • Jurassic

    The iPhone 5c was “bait” for the more expensive, more profitable iPhone 5s.

    Apple provided a less expensive iPhone in the 5c that drew in new and curious buyers. Most of the buyers that initially considered the iPhone 5c decided to “upgrade” to buying the iPhone 5s…

    … Is this situation a “bad thing” for Apple? Quite the contrary! However, some people are treating this very successful marketing strategy as “failure”… go figure!!! 😉

  • Viking

    IPhone is Apple’s most important product and North America is its most important market. Apple’s poor results in Q1 in NA was a big red flag. The fact that guidance for Q2 was so low begs the question of have we seen peak iPhone sales? What was the reason for slow NA iPhone sales? The carriers were not allowing customers to upgrade earl and were forcing then to hold phones for 24 months. When Tim Cook was questioned on the conference call as to how long people were hanging on to their devices he said they had yet to receive/look at the data.

    I love the company and love the products and will continue to buy them. However, when I put my investor hat on if we have hit ‘peak iPhone sales’ this impacts the outlook for future revenue, profitability and share price.

  • AhmadZainiChia

    I do agree that for Apple to continue to do well in the smartphone space, it has to start going downmarket just a little bit: which was what they were trying to do with the 5C, I feel. 2013 was the first time they’ve ever tried it, and of course there were some rocky starts. However, Tim Cook did say that there were more 5C’s sold in 2013 than 4S’s sold in 2012: that is at least a good start. And the huge, unexpected 5S demand was a pretty huge positive which was barely glanced over.

    In short, Apple’s ratio of positives to negatives is 100 : 1. But, I guess when people expect them to be
    1 000 000 : 1, then Apple did fall short.

  • pk_de_cville

    I find this interesting. TC mentioned the stretched out carrier subsidization requirement. The carriers charge no exit fee only after 24 months instead of the previous 20 months.

    Doesn’t that mean significant purchases are going to be made this and next qtr (3 and 6 mo later)?

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