Panic Inside Apple and Cheers for Satya

on April 7, 2014
Reading Time: 5 minutes

The blogosphere has suddenly discovered the incredible array of products, tools and services Microsoft has long possessed. Better late than never, I suppose. Fact is, their realization of the obvious is in large part due to the accessible dynamism and well-regarded tech cred of Microsoft’s new CEO, Satya Nadella.

Nadella’s hire makes for a great story on many levels. I will get to those in time. The more important story however, is the potential trouble brewing inside Apple.

Yes, Apple is the richest tech company in the world. Its laptops, smartphones and tablets are the established market leaders. But as we learned last week, from still another Apple-Samsung court case, Apple is clearly in the throes of that great ontological concern sure to stricken all those with immense wealth and power: Who am I? 

The very question could prove debilitating.

Since being named CEO, Nadella has rallied the troops, made the necessary overtures to developers, appeased the critics, silenced the doubters and taken rather bold, once unthinkable actions to ensure Microsoft has a prosperous future in mobile, in the cloud, in homes and businesses, on Apple, the web, and the Internet of Things. Not a bad two months.

The talk about Apple? There’s still no large display iPhone and the iPhone 5c is still unwanted.

All Our Yesterdays

Thanks to Apple’s ongoing “holy war” against Google — and the court documents that are now public — we learned last week what we already suspected:

  1. Samsung’s ads attacking Apple users are particularly powerful.
  2. The market for smartphones costing less than $300 is growing like mad — and this greatly concerns Apple.
  3. The market for smartphones with displays larger than the iPhone 5 and 5s is growing like mad — and this greatly concerns Apple.

iphone-4-5-inch-displays-1

We learned something else, however. Something I had not previously considered — there is dissension among the upper ranks of Apple.

Apple is struggling to understand the bounds between margins and market share and how best to maintain the profit stranglehold its iPhone franchise has on the industry.

If Apple doesn’t know, this game just got really interesting.

Guess what? Apple doesn’t know.

The iPhone 5c has made that painfully clear.

With iPhone sales growth rapidly decelerating, SVP Phil Schiller is rightly worried “customers want what we don’t have.”

What Apple doesn’t have of course, is two things: an iPhone under $300 and an iPhone with a larger Lumia 1520-like display — the two areas where most of the smartphone growth is coming from.

Expect a larger display iPhone this year.

The low cost iPhone was supposed to be here already: the iPhone 5c.

Someone at Apple clearly blinked.

Given Phil Schiller’s exhortations for a low cost device, my suspicion is Schiller is now on the opposite side of Jony Ive and possibly even Tim Cook. Given the early growing pains of iCloud, perhaps Eddy Cue also was opposed to a low cost iPhone. They really needed to have decided all that before launching 5c.

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

The iPhone 5c was meant to be the “low cost” iPhone but has failed at this one job. It’s almost comically overpriced. I’m now convinced internal divisions, corporate concerns over margins, branding and sourcing all forced Apple to blink and price the 5c far higher than it ever should have been.

As I wrote in a previous Insiders post (subscription required):

Apple’s iPhone 5c has been a striking failure, however, selling far fewer devices than Apple expected, likely dampening overall iPhone sales, and, if well-placed rumors are correct, very soon to be no longer of this world.

It all began, of course, with so much promise. The iPhone 5c — aka the “cheap iPhone” — was, we were convinced, going to be the aggressively priced new iPhone, ready to dismantle Android throughout the developing world, possibly beyond. It would (quickly) add tens of millions, ultimately hundreds of millions of new users into the Apple/iOS ecosystem.

Based on the court documents we saw last week, which make clear many inside Apple understood the pressing threat from the low end, such a low priced device was commissioned. Only…Apple doesn’t do low end.

But it must.

But Apple doesn’t do low end.

The end result: a failed product, at least. Given Apple’s strengths, that’s easy to recover from. If there are splits within Apple’s executive ranks, however, that could prove a lasting harm.

The iPhone 5c should not exist unless it’s priced at about $300 or so. The forces within Apple demanding such a device obviously clashed with the forces that demanded margins — and brand equity — trump new users.

I confess I find this fascinating.

I find it even more intriguing now that the giant, bloated, aging Microsoft has been rather stunningly re-energized.

In my earlier Insiders post on the iPhone 5c, I was troubled with the question, ‘why’. Why did the 5c happen and how?

Explain this: A 16gig 5c retails for $549. A 16gig 5s retails for $649. Why?

For that extra $100, the iPhone 5s buyer receives the following additional hardware, services and benefits:

  • A7
  • M7
  • TouchID sensor
  • Lighter weight
  • True Tone flash and larger 8 MP sensor
  • Slo-mo video
  • Enhanced imaging features

I stated then Apple had foolishly devalued its hardware by making a mere $100 price differential between iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c:

The most egregious, most confounding failure of the 5c, and the one I think will haunt Apple, is that the 5c effectively declares to all the world that one or all iPhones are radically overpriced. I am at a loss to understand how Apple allowed this to happen.

Now I know. Internal divisions. The 5c is a fine product, one explicitly designed to bring millions more into the iOS ecosystem. Only, the counter-forces decided another piece of beautiful, functional Apple hardware could not be priced with other ‘mid-tier’ devices.

That’s just not Apple.

Full Of Sound And Fury

The iPhone still accounts for the majority of the Apple’s revenues. The focus then is on building out the iPhone base, maximizing its profit potential, surrounding it with more and more devices, services and accessories to ensure lock-in. This is Tim Cook’s wheelhouse.

You can brand Cook as not being a ‘product guy’ like Steve Jobs, or not a true techie like Satya Nadella, but there is probably no one better suited for growing Apple and the iPhone business.

iphone revenues

With Cook in charge, and given his keen ability to scale manufacturing and optimize profits, expect the iPhone to be the center of the Apple universe for years to come, probably through at least this decade.

Apple wearables will require the iPhone. CarPlay will require the iPhone. New Apple accessories will be optimized for the iPhone. iBeacons will work best with the iPhone. New forms of peer-to-peer and point-to-point sharing, via the iPhone, will be rolled out over the months and years.

This is all very wise.

But I confess the failure of Apple to deliver a low cost iPhone, when so many obviously want one, when its top execs understand the potential for one, does make me question Cook’s ability to guide Apple toward the post-iPhone revolution.

Unfair? Perhaps. Even if I’m right, given I expect iPhones — smartphones, in general — to be our primary mode of computing and connectivity through this decade, Apple likely won’t feel the least bit of pain.

We are, after all, still well into the evolutionary phase of smartphone and tablet computing. This year’s iPhone, this year’s iPad, will be better than last year’s. Next year’s will be better still. And so on and so on. But a revolutionary new product? One that can live outside of the iPhone or iTunes sphere? Do not expect any such breakthrough product or service anytime in the near future from Apple. Apple is on a very direct course, set by Tim Cook, with its mission being to ensure the iPhone continues to print money. A low cost iPhone would have threatened the vision Cook holds for Apple’s future. It’s a vision I believe is almost guaranteed to succeed yet also highly predictable.

At Microsoft meanwhile, everything is in flux.

Which brings me back to Satya Nadella. He has the benefit of knowing his core moneymakers are nearing the end of their life. Tim Cook is not yet aware of such horrors.

When that day does come, I cannot say if he will still be the best person to lead Apple.