Putting hopes for Apple’s future on a magical New Category misunderstands the company’s real direction. Instead, Apple stays the course and continues to play its Ecosystem Game. Many interpret this as a company in death throes.

The iPhone is 7 years old. The iPad was introduced 4 years ago. Since then… nothing.
Apple’s growth is gone: a mere 9% revenue uptick in 2013; only 6% for the last quarter.

It’s time to acknowledge the painfully obvious truth: Innovation has deserted Apple. Something must have gone seriously wrong if the company can no longer break into new categories.

This is the refrain that echoes through the Web… and this is the toxic waste of success.

It started back in the early 80’s when all we wanted was a better Apple ][ (or a working Apple ///)… and we were stunned by the Macintosh. We were unable to imagine a mouse + a bit-mapped display + moveable windows + pull-down menus, all the things that came to define the next iteration of personal computers. We couldn’t imagine it because we didn’t have the right words to think with.

The Mac created a template for what we’ve come to expect from Apple: A breakthrough. Now we’ve had two epochal hits in rapid succession — the iPhone and iPad — and, once again, we’re hooked. We need another fix, another burst of excitement, something New and Different. We’re no longer satisfied with the boring New and Improved.

The desire for Something New is understandable, but breakthroughs don’t happen on demand… and a “breakthrough” isn’t always necessary.

Consider the PC. In rough numbers, the PC is 40 years old. In that time, it has matured into what we now enjoy through gradual improvements to hardware and software: Better graphics, sound, displays, user interface, network connectivity.

Why don’t we take as much pleasure in the continuous flow of improvements to our smartphones and tablets?

When we regard the new categories that Apple has “failed” to create (or join) we face a number of problems.

We’ll make short work of the fantasized Apple TV set. We all know what we want: à la carte content served to us as apps through an Apple-grade device. We’ve had enough of the Soviet-era set-top boxes and tiered pricing foisted on us by cable companies.

Even if Apple wanted to head in that direction — and step into the quagmire of exploitative relationships between content creators, distributors, and de facto carrier monopolies — the impact on the company’s top and bottom lines, revenue and profit, would be moderate. Ten million set-top boxes at (say) $299 makes “only” $3B — that’s less than 2% of last year’s revenue.

(A short digression on the curse of large numbers: At Apple’s size, which is approaching $200B in yearly revenue, a “breakthrough” product would need to generate at least 5%  — $10B — in order to move the needle. That’s approximately one Facebook.)

What about wearables? It’s a lively category and will get livelier as sensors get more sophisticated, consume less energy, and benefit from software refinements. Microsoft had one years ago; Pebble, Samsung, and many others offer “smartwatches”; Fitbit and Jawbone Up manufacture “fitness bracelets”.

My take on smartwatches and bracelets (The Next Apple TV: iWatch, More iWatch Fun and Apple’s Wearable Future) is that Apple is already in that category – with the “Always With Us” iPhone and motion sensing, and with apps such as Azumio’s Instant Heart Rate app.

We now turn to cars. The CarPlay announcement at the Geneva Motor Show follows the iOS in the Car presentation at last year’s WWDC (Apple’s Developers Conference).

We have to ask: How does the CarPlay money pump work, and in which direction? Does Mercedes Pay Apple, or the other way around? On the technical and User Interface levels, how does the tightly controlled and consistent Apple experience survive the wide range of UI cultures and cost constraints so painfully obvious in today’s cars? On its CarPlay webpage, Apple makes broad promises:

“To activate Siri voice control, just press and hold the voice control button on the steering wheel.”
“If your CarPlay-equipped vehicle has a touchscreen, you can use it to control CarPlay.”

and..

“CarPlay also works with the knobs, dials, or buttons in the car. If it controls your screen, it controls CarPlay.”

We’ll have to wait and see how “the apps you want to use in the car have been reimagined” and how automakers play one smartphone ecosystem against another.

In any case, CarPlay isn’t a product that’s meant to stand on its own. In Apple’s own words, it’s part of the iPhone ecosystem:

“CarPlay is a smarter, safer way to use your iPhone in the car. CarPlay takes the things you want to do with your iPhone while driving and puts them right on your car’s built-in display.”

A not-so-surprising  pattern emerges: Rather than play the New Category game, Apple stays the Ecosystem Development course it’s been on since the advent of the truly epoch-making iTunes. Tim Cook may claim that the $99 Apple TV black puck Tim Cook is no longer a hobby”, but its yearly revenue is in the $1B range, less than 1% of the company’s overall number. Apple may make a wearable someday, but will everyone want an iWatch the way they want an iPhone? And let’s not expect direct revenue upticks from CarPlay, just a more pleasant iPhone experience in “selected” vehicles.

This gets us to Apple’s deeply rooted fixation: From its April 1st, 1976 founding to this day, Apple has been in one and only one business: personal computers. Today, they come in three sizes: Macs, iPads, and iPhones. Everything else Apple creates — iTunes, the App Store, the physical Apple Stores, Apple TV pucks, CarPlay, the mythical iWatch — these are all part of the supporting cast, and they have a single mission: Prop up the volume and margins of the star products.

This isn’t to diminish the importance of the supporting cast. iTunes begat the iPod, a product once so successful it generated more revenue than the Mac in 2006. iTunes also introduced the distribution mechanism and micro-payment system that unleashed the iPhone’s full power, that made it an “app-phone”. As our friend Horace Dediu points out, iTunes by itself would rank #130 in the Fortune 500 list (yearly gross revenue of $23.5B, + 34% growth in 2103).

Nonetheless, iTunes doesn’t have a separate P&L (Profit & Loss) statement in Apple’s financials because there’s only one P&L for the entire company. There are no “line of business” numbers because there’s only one business.

As the Macalope explains, ecosystems are put to very different uses by Amazon and Google, on the one hand, and Apple:

“Amazon and Google sell tablets at cut rates in order to get people to use their ecosystems. It’s less crucial for them that people buy tablets; they just want people to use tablets to buy stuff and look at ads. Apple makes money off its ecosystem, too, but unlike Amazon and Google that’s not where it makes most of its money.”

Still, there is another possibility. Apple could get into an entirely new business, as opposed to one or more of the ecosystem-supporting products/services mentioned above. One such example is Amazon Web Services (AWS). Instead of opening another line of product sales, fresh produce or wine, Amazon got into the business of renting servers to companies large and small. It’s not Amazon’s biggest line, it weighs less than 3% of total revenue, it’s thought to be very profitable (unlike the main lines) and grows very fast. Gartner thinks AWS is now larger than its next five competitors combined. An amazing success.

Amazon did it because it developed a superior computer services infrastructure  for its core business and decided to offer similar services to any and all.

Back to Apple, could one imagine the company using some of its hard-earned expertise to branch in a different, non personal computers business? For a not-too-serious example, Porsche makes cars and there is a Porsche Design business. But I don’t see Tim Cook telling Sir Jony to open a design studio business. And Porsche Design weighs nothing compared to the Porsche car maker. Such branching out sounds very remote.

So is it true that Apple has given up on developing its business? In 2013, Apple increased its R&D spending by 32% (you can download Apple’s entire 10-K report here); 2012 was + 39%. In the previous two fiscal years ending last September — and without entering any new category — Apple increased its R&D spending by 83% to $4.5B, 3% of revenue. And then it increased it by another 33% in the December, 2013 quarter.

Accelerated R&D spending can only mean one thing: Apple is widening the range of products under development. Let’s just hope company execs continue to be as good as they’ve been in the past at saying No, at not shipping everything they engineer.

JLG@mondaynote.com

 

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