The Monthlification of Apple

Jan Dawson / October 22nd, 2015

OK, so I just made up a word, but it’s the best word I can think of for one of the biggest new trends with Apple’s business. One that has the potential to dramatically change its relationship with its customers. The trend I’m referring to is the increasing move at Apple to establish recurring monthly revenue relationships with its customers and move away from merely having periodic one-off payments for hardware. I think there are several very positive things that could come out of this for Apple but I think there’s also potential for a specific downside to this shift.

An increasing number of subscription services

As a company which began selling hardware and, to a lesser extent, software rather than services, Apple has dabbled over the years with various subscriptions. eWorld, back in the 1990s, was a short-lived online service sold as a monthly subscription and, with iTools, .Mac, MobileMe and most recently iCloud, Apple has had various other membership-based services, some of which have been sold on a monthly subscription basis as well. But over the last several years, Apple’s number of monthly subscription services and their centrality to its product offerings have increased quite a bit. iCloud storage is one of the most commonly used of these, with monthly plans starting at 99 cents per month and rising to $9.99 per month in the US. But Apple also has iTunes Match, priced at $24.99 per year (or just over $2 per month), Apple Music at $9.99 or $14.99 per month for the individual and family plans respectively and, of course, iOS users can sign up for a plethora of third-party services through their iTunes accounts, from Netflix to MLB.tv to subscriptions to the New York Times.

As of today, an avid user of Apple devices and their associated services could easily be spending $50 per month through their iTunes account on a combination of automatically-renewing services, billed monthly. If Apple launches a TV/video subscription service at some point (as seems likely), that total monthly bill could easily rise to $80-100. Apple is tapping into a broader societal trend away from one-off purchases and towards monthly subscriptions, which has affected everything from software (with SaaS becoming the dominant model for both businesses and consumers) to content (with the move from purchases of physical media to digital content and now to streaming services like Spotify and Hulu).

The iPhone Upgrade Program adds an interesting wrinkle

With the iPhone Upgrade Program, Apple is applying this same subscription and monthly payment model to buying hardware. Under this program, iPhone users can pay anywhere from $32 to $45 per month to lease an iPhone directly from Apple. It’s easy to imagine this kind of program being extended to other Apple hardware over time, too. Apple Watches and iPads are already offered on installment plans in at least some cases by wireless carriers and Macs of various shapes and sizes could eventually join them. As such, hardware may begin to shift from a series of occasional one-off purchases to a regular monthly revenue stream.

An affordable way into the Apple ecosystem

Combining these hardware leasing programs with the subscription services I mentioned could allow customers to buy into the Apple ecosystem for a single monthly fee starting at $50 or so and going up quite dramatically from there, depending on which Apple and third-party products they opt to include. This could potentially make Apple devices more accessible for people for whom several hundred dollar one-off cash outlays are hard to afford. It could also have a powerful psychological effect on consumer perception of the cost of owning Apple devices. It’s not a stretch to think Apple might eventually start to bundle some of these things into a single package for customers that includes music and video subscription services, cloud storage, and the like as well as hardware ownership. All of this, in turn, could help make Apple’s future financial performance more predictable, since customers would be on a regular upgrade cycle, with recurring monthly revenues, and less volatility than the current annual product launches. As such, both consumers and Apple (and its investors) would benefit – a win-win.

The potential downside – paying the Apple bill

If there’s a downside to this, it’s this regular monthly relationship could put Apple in the same boat as a number of other things consumers really don’t enjoy dealing with. A monthly Apple bill would be one of a number of bills the customer would pay in this way, along with their phone, TV, water, and electricity bills. Though the barrier to entry for the Apple ecosystem would be lower, and the psychological effect of paying $50 at a time instead of $650 is powerful, so is the effect of facing a regular monthly bill for that amount (or higher). There’s a risk that, as Apple embraces this “monthlification” of its business, it begins to occupy the same mental space for consumers as a utility.

The associations people have with the other things they pay for on a monthly basis this way are not generally positive – think of the feelings you have about your water, electricity, phone or cable bill, for example. Consumers start to become very aware of quite how much is leaving their bank account each month, and they also become more aware of periodic increases in that amount, especially if they’re hard to understand. If Apple does go down this road, it will have to be conscious of the subtle ways in which its relationship with customers will change. Though a several hundred dollar (or even several thousand dollar purchase) can be hard to stomach, once it’s made, the customer is left with full ownership of a product and the fading memory of how much it cost. But with monthly payments, the customer is constantly reminded of just how much they’re paying for the privilege of using (but in some cases not owning) those same products.

An inevitable shift

I think this gradual shift away from one-off purchases and towards monthly payments is inevitable – as I said, it’s taken over the software and content worlds already and, especially in the US, the move to monthly payments for phones is also well underway. Apple is wise to embrace this shift rather than resist it, but it also needs to be very careful about how this plays out and be especially wary of layering one monthly payment after another onto customers’ accounts. The move to monthly payments could well be a good thing for Apple and its customers. But Apple needs to make sure that’s the case in reality.

Jan Dawson

Jan Dawson is Founder and Chief Analyst at Jackdaw, a technology research and consulting firm focused on the confluence of consumer devices, software, services and connectivity. During his thirteen years as a technology analyst, Jan has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. As such, he brings a unique perspective to the consumer technology space, pulling together insights on communications and content services, device hardware and software, and online services to provide big-picture market analysis and strategic advice to his clients. Jan has worked with many of the world’s largest operators, device and infrastructure vendors, online service providers and others to shape their strategies and help them understand the market. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Jan worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as Chief Telecoms Analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally.
  • m_shark

    I’d call their new iPhone business model an IAAS – iPhone as a Service, moving away from one-off payment to regular installments for hardware coupled with different add-ons (extended insurance, service period, etc).

  • Defendor

    Simply a case of “Adapt or Die” IMO. Subscription services were on the rise, and unit sales of music were dropping.

    Hardware leasing is likely a hedge in case the Telecoms stop hiding the purchase price in monthly fees.

    • benbajarin

      US based Telecos don’t hide the purchase anymore. They are moving everyoen to their own installment plans and customers see the full price up front and pay the taxes on the full cost up front. I agree its smart though. Lots of people have such a good relationship with Apple they won’t have a problem paying them a monthly fee for all their tech.

  • Kenny

    It was a great move from Apple from a business perspective,
    I think Google and Android OEMs must develop a similar program in partnership with Best Buy to finance sales of Android High End Smartphone to reduce the power grab that the carrier have over Android OEMs that is destroying the ecosystem by not providing the necessary security updates and after sell services to Android consumers.

  • longboard

    You’re pretty close to have created a portmanteau, if not already.

  • obarthelemy

    Don’t we have a previous example of a similar strategy wih Detroit and car financing ?
    I think it didn’t make much of a difference in the end, both because it doesn’t change the underlying economics, and the setup is easy to duplicate.
    Of course, cars don’t have network effects and lock-in, so the market is a lot more fluid… I’m guessing that side of the equation is much more important than sticker shock, especially in countries where debt is a way of life.

    Also, I’m wondering if changing the act of purchasing from a one-off ego-booster to a recurring nag is that good an idea for luxury purchases ? Isn’t there something very different between giving $800 and getting a shiny phone, and receiving a $60 bill 11/23 months on for that tired old phone ?

  • hibits

    very thoughtful analysis.

  • Nice post. Don’t forget the upside of utilities, something that Zuck understands quite well.

    http://techcrunch.com/2013/09/18/facebook-doesnt-want-to-be-cool/

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