Rumors don’t actual Apple products make, see the perennial Apple TV — and the latest iWatch rumors. This is an opportunity to step back, look at Apple’s one and only love –personal computers — and use this thought to sift through rumors. 

Every week brings new rumors of soon-to-be-released Apple products. The mythical Apple TV set is always a favorite: Gossip of an Apple buyout of troubled TV maker Löwe has sent the German company’s stock soaring. We also hear of a radio streaming service that will challenge Pandora and Spotify, and there’s the usual gaggle of iPhone, iPad, and Mac variations. More interesting is the racket surrounding Apple’s “stealth” projects:  an iWatch and other wearable devices (and “racket” is the right word — see these intimations of stock manipulation).

There is a way to see through the dust, to bring some clarity, to organize our thoughts when considering what Apple might actually do, why the company would (or wouldn’t) do it, and how a rumored product would fit into the game plan.

The formula is simple: Apple engineers may wax poetic about the crystalline purity of the software architecture, execs take pride in the manufacturing chain and distribution channels (and rightly so), marketing can point to the Apple Customer Experience (when they’re not pitching regrettable Genius ads or an ill-timed campaign featuring Venus and Serena Williams). But what really floats their bots, what hardens Apple’s resolve is designing, making, and selling large numbers of personal computers, from the traditional desktop/laptop Mac, to the genre-validating iPad, and on to the iPhone — the Very Personal Computer. Everything else is an ingredient, a booster, a means to the noblest end.

Look at Apple’s report to its owners: there’s only one Profit and Loss (P&L) statement for the entire $200B business. Unlike Microsoft or HP, for example, there is no P&L by division. As Tim Cook put it:

We manage the company at the top and just have one P&L and don’t worry about the iCloud team making money and the Siri team making money…we don’t do that–we don’t believe in that…

Apple’s appreciation for the importance and great economic potential of personal computers — which were invented to act as dumb servants to help us with data storage, text manipulation, math operations — may have been, at first, more instinctual than reasoned. But it doesn’t matter; the company’s monomania, it’s collective passion is undeniable. More than any other company, Apple has made computers personal, machines we can lift with our hands and our credit cards.

With these personal computer glasses on, we see a bit more clearly.

For example: Is Apple a media distribution company? Take a look at Apple’s latest 10-Q SEC filing, especially the Management Discussion and Analysis (MD&A) section starting page 21. iTunes, now reported separately, clocked $3.7B for the last quarter of 2012.  Elsewhere, Horace Dediu sees $13.5B for the entire year. A big number indeed, and, certainly, iTunes is a key to Apple’s success: Without iTunes there would have been no iPod, Apple’s “halo product“, proof that the company could come up with a winner.  Later, iTunes begat the App Store, a service that solidified the App Phone genre.

Some misguided analysts look at the numbers and argue that Apple ought to spin off iTunes. They use the old “shareholder value” gambit, but the “value” simply isn’t there: Horace Dediu puts iTunes margins in the 15% region, well below Apple’s overall 38%. iTunes is a hugely important means to the personal computer end, but it’s not a separate business.

How about Apple as a retail company? The success of the Apple Store is stellar, a word that’s almost too weak: The Apple Stores welcomed three times more visitors than all of the Disney parks, and generated more than $20B in revenue last year — that works out to an astonishing $6000 per square foot, twice as much as the #2 shop (Tiffany and Co.). But Apple’s 400 stores aren’t a business, they only exist to create an experience that will lead to more sales, enhanced customer satisfaction, and, as a consequence, increased margins.

Apple as a software company? No. The raison d’être for OS X, iOS, iWork, and even Garage Band is to breathe life into Apple hardware. By now, the calls for Apple to see the error of its ways, to not repeat the original sin of not licensing Mac OS, to sell iOS licenses to all comers have (almost) died.
During my first visit to Apple’s hypergalactic headquarters and warehouse in February 1981, I was astonished at the sight of forklifts moving pallets of Apple ][ software. The term “ecosystem” wasn’t part of the industry lingo yet, but I had witnessed the birth of the notion.
Apple had a much harder time building a similarly rich set of applications for the Macintosh, but the lesson was eventually learned, partly due to the NeXT acquisition and the adoption of object oriented programming. We now have a multi-dimensional macrocosm — a true ecosystem — in which our various forms of personal computing work together, share data, media, services.

Where does the current Apple TV device (the black puck, not the mythical TV set) fit into this scheme? Apple TV runs on a version of iOS, and it knows how to communicate with a Bluetooth keyboard — but that doesn’t mean the device is a personal computer. Perhaps Apple will (someday) provide a TV Software Development Kit (SDK) so developers can adapt existing iOS apps or write new ones. But I still see it as a lean-back device, as opposed to a lean-forward PC.

In any case, sales of the $100 black puck don’t move the needle. Four million Apple TVs were sold in 2012; even if ten million are sold this year — and that’s a very optimistic estimate — it won’t make a noticeable difference, at least not directly. Apple TV is a neat part of the ecosystem, it makes iPhones, iPads, Macs and our iTunes libraries more valuable, but it’s still just a member of the supporting cast.

This brings us back to the putative iWatch. Computer history buffs will recall the HP 01 watch. Buoyed by the success of its handheld calculators, including the programable HP 65 with its magnetic card reader, HP convinced itself it could make a calculator watch, introduced in 1977:

A technology tour de force, fondly remembered by aging geeks, but a market failure: too expensive, too hard to use, ill-fitting distribution channels.

Apple is in a different spot. Today, you can find a number of iPod watchbands such as this one:

It’s hard to imagine that Apple would merely integrate an existing accessory into a new iPod. Sales of the iPod proper are decelerating, so the iPod-as-iWatch could give the line a much needed boost, but it’s difficult to reconcile the rumors of “100 people” working on the project if it’s just a retrofit job. Is Apple working on an iWatch that can be experienced as an Even More Personal personal computer — an “intimate computer”? If so, many questions arise: user interface, sensors, iOS version, new types of apps, connection with other iDevices… And, of course price.

This would be much more interesting than the perennially in-the-future Apple TV set. Of course, iWatch and Apple TV aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. If the Löwe buyout rumors are true, Apple could do both — the company could develop its own watch device and repurpose Löwe’s TV. (I still doubt the TV set part, as opposed to enhancing the black puck.)

But once we understand what Apple’s only business is, and that the related software, retail, and services are simply part of the supporting cast, Apple’s attitude towards big acquisitions becomes clearer. Apple isn’t looking at buying a big new business, it already owns The Big One. So, no movie studio, no retail chain or cable company, no HP or Dell, or Yahoo!. (But… a big law firm, perhaps?) Integrating a large group of people into Apple’s strong, unbending culture would, alone, prove to be impossible.

A small acquisition to absorb technology (and talented people) makes sense. The cultural integration risks remain, but at a manageable scale, unlike what happened to Exxon in the early eighties when it burned $4B (that was real money, then) in a failed attempt to become an information systems company — you know, the Oil of the Twenty-First Century.

Let’s just hope Apple doesn’t talk itself into a “because we can” move.

JLG@mondaynote.com

 

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