About Jean-Louis Gassée

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Posts by Jean-Louis Gassée:

Decoding Share Prices: Amazon, Apple and Facebook

There are many religions when it comes to calculating the “right” price for the shares of a publicly traded company. At a basic level, buying a share is an act of faith in the company’s future earnings. The strength of this belief manifests itself in the company’s P/E (Price/Earnings) ratio. The stronger the faith, the higher the P/E, an expectation of increased profit.

Sometimes, an extreme P/E number beggars belief, it invites a deeper look into the thoughts and emotions that drive prices.

One such example is Amazon. On the Nasdaq stock market, AMZN trades at more than 174 times its most recent earnings. By comparison, Google’s P/E hovers around 17, Apple and Walmart are a mere 14, Microsoft is a measly 11.

This is so spectacular that many think it doesn’t make sense, especially when looking at Amazon’s falling profit margin (from this Seeking Alpha post):

Why do traders bid AMZN so high in the face of a declining .5% profit margin?

In his May 5th PandoDaily piece, “Nobody Seems to Understand What Jeff Bezos is Doing. Does He?”, Farhad Manjoo questions Jeff Bezos’s strategy and Amazon’s taste for obfuscating statements:

“Amazon is not merely “willing” to be misunderstood, it often tries to actively sow widespread misunderstanding. This works [to] its advantage; if competitors don’t know what Amazon is up to, if they can’t even figure out where and how it aims to make money, they’ll have a harder time beating it.”

…and he concludes:

“Is Bezos crazy like a fox? Or is he just plain crazy? We have no idea.”

He’s not alone: Year after year, critics have challenged Bezos’ business acumen, criticizing his grandiose views and worrying about the company’s bottom line. But the top line, revenue, keeps rising. See this chart from a Seeking Alpha article by Richard Bloch:

The answer to Farhad’s question, the cold logic behind the seemingly irrational share price is clear: Amazon sacrifices profits in order to gain size and, in the process, kill competitors.

That’s step one.

Step two: After having cleared the field, Amazon will take advantage of what is delicately called “pricing power”. As the Last Man Standing, they will raise prices at will and regain profitability. This isn’t Amazon’s only game. The breadth of their offering, their superior customer service and awesome logistics, make life difficult for poorly managed competitors such as Best Buy, or the undead Circuit City, to name but a few companies whose weaknesses where exposed by Amazon’s superbly efficient machine.

But traders recognize the wink and the nod behind today’s numbers, they are willing to pay a high price for a share of Amazon’s future dominant position.

Apple’s share price sits at the other end of the P/E spectrum. Revenue and profits grow rapidly: + 58% profit year-to-year, + 94% net income. “Normal” companies in their league are supposed to fall to the Law of Large Numbers: High percentage growth becomes well-nigh impossible when a company achieves Apple’s gigantic size. A $100B business needs to dig up $25B in new business to grow 25%. $25B is roughly half the size of Dell. When Apple’s revenue grows 58%, that’s more than one Dell on top of last year’s business.

Apple is the nonpareil of fast-growing, prosperous companies. They’re in a young market: smartphones and tablets. They can easily break the Law. With only 8% of the mobile phone market, the iPhone enjoys considerable headroom. And the iPad’s +151% year/year unit growth shows even greater potential.

So why isn’t Wall Street buying? Why do they think Apple has so much less room to grow than Amazon?

First, a big difference: Apple’s founder is no longer with us while Bezos is very much in command. This is no criticism of Tim Cook, Apple’s new CEO. A long-time Jobs lieutenant, the architect of Apple’s supremely effective Supply Chain, a soberly determined man, well liked, respected and healthily feared inside the company, Tim Cook is eminently credible. But traders are cautious; they want to see if the Cook regime will be as innovative, as uncompromisingly focused on style and substance as before.

Second, the much talked-about iPhone subsidy “problem”. The accepted notion is that Apple has strong-armed carriers into paying “excessive” subsidies for the iPhone, some say as much as $200 more than carriers pay other handset makers. (See “Carriers Whine: We Wuz Robbed!” of March 11, 2012.) Carriers rattle their sabers, they let everyone know they’re looking forward to the day when they will no longer be fleeced by the Cupertino boys.

The numbers are impressive. Take about 150 million iPhones this calendar year (37M units in the last quarter of 2011); assume that 80% of these iPhones are subsidized by carriers…that’s $24B in subsidies. For people who are betting on Apple’s future profits, these are big numbers that could go either way: Straight to Apple’s bottom line as they do today, or back to the carriers’ coffers “where they belong”. For Apple, with today’s P/E of 14, a swing of $24B in profits would result in a change of $336B in market cap. (Today Wall Street pegs AAPL at $525B.)

I’m not saying such a shift is likely, or that it would happen in one fell swoop. I use this admittedly caricatural computation to make a point: Carrier subsidies have a huge impact on Apple’s bottom line, and the perceived uncertainty over their future gives traders pause.

I’ll now take the opposite tack with this Horace Dediu tweet:

In my venture investing experience, it sometimes happens that the top salesperson makes more money than the CEO. In most instances the exec is happy to see big revenue come in and doesn’t begrudge the correspondingly large commissions. But, in the rare case of the CEO turning purple because a lowly peddler makes more money than him (it’s a male problem), we take the gent aside and gently let him know what will happen to him if he does it again.

Carriers sound like the bad CEO complaining about excessive sales commissions racked up by their star revenue maker. Carriers are contractually obligated to keep iPhone figures confidential so we can’t make a direct ARPU comparison — but we have anonymous leaks and research-for-hire firms, they’re curiously silent on the question of actual ARPU by handset. In the absence of a clear case made to the contrary, we’ll have to assume that the iPhone is the carriers’ top revenue generator, and that the subsidies will continue.

This said, if Apple comes out with a mediocre iPhone, or if Samsung produces a distinctly more attractive handset, the salesman’s commission will disappear, Apple’s revenue per iPhone (about $650 in Q1 2012) will drop precipitously, and so will profits.

That’s the scenario that makes traders cautious: Large amounts of profit are at risk, tied to carrier subsidies. They wonder if Apple’s lofty premium is sustainable and, as a result, they assign AAPL a lower P/E.

But “caution” may be too weak a word. In a May 7th 2012 Asymco post, Horace Dediu plots Apple’s share price as a function of cash:

This is troubling. It implies that cash is the only determinant of Apple’s share price.

Put another way, and recalling that share prices are supposed to reflect earnings expectations, it appears Wall Street puts little faith in the future of Apple’s earnings [emphasis mine]:

“Given this disconnect from the income statement, the pricing by balance sheet multiple seems to be a symptom of something deeper. Reasons vary with the seasons, but the company is not perceived to have sustainable growth.

Fascinating. The collective wisdom of Wall Street is that one of the most successful high-tech companies of all times, with three healthy product lines, strong management, generally happy customers and employees is not perceived to have sustainable growth.

We’ll see.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll repeat something I’ve stated here before: I don’t own publicly-traded stocks, Google, Microsoft, Apple or any other. I consider the stock market a dangerous place where, across the table, I see people with bigger brains, bigger computers, and bigger wallets than mine. I can’t win. The casino always does…unless you don’t trade but, instead, invest–that is buy shares and keep them for years, the way Warren Buffet does.)

And Facebook?

I’ll wait for the dust of this botched IPO to settle before I try to figure out what Facebook’s share price reflects. I agree with Ronal Barusch in his WSJ blog piece: I’m not convinced that Facebook or its bankers will suffer irreparable damage.

Still, rumors and accusations are flying. Following Nasdaq’s disastrous handling of Facebook’s opening trades, we hear that the New York Stock Exchange is discreetly suggesting that the company move to a more sophisticated trading platform. This is a great opportunity for Facebook to change its FB stock trading symbol and adopt one that more accurately reflects its opinion of Wall Street.

I have a suggestion: FU.

JLG@mondaynote.com

California’s Financial and Cultural Deficits

I think I found a cure for both. First, the symptoms. Financially, California is close to being bankrupt, it spends more than it makes and runs a huge $361B debt, as illustrated by the online, live Debt Clock:

Unemployment is high; infrastructure is neglected; the pride of California, its UC Colleges, must raise tuition beyond the reach of the very people it was supposed to lift into higher education; California’s State Parks, another treasure, are neglected and being closed.

Fortunately, there’s a solution — and it’s right in our neighborhood. We’ve seen the wealth created by a flurry of recent Valley IPOs, and we’ve watched the rise in share price of more established companies. From Apple to Zynga, Facebook, and LinkedIn, we have a fresh crop of McBillionaires ready to help.

So, here’s what we’re going to do.

First, let’s all agree: $100K in monthly compensation is plenty. Beyond that, a 75% tax rate will help replenish the Golden State’s coffers.

Second, millionaires and billionaires won’t suffer much from a small yearly tax on their assets: 0.25% from $1.5M to $5M, half a penny on every asset dollar from $5M and up. Simplifying a bit, if you have $10M in assets you’ll pay about $50K in asset taxes every year, $100M yields $500K, $1B (think Facebook IPO) brings in $5M, and so on. A pittance for the great feeling of helping one’s fellow Californians.

Then there’s culture. Californians are perceived as a bunch of materialists obsessed with bling, cars, tans, IPOs, wineries, private jets, and various types of cosmetic augmentation and reduction. Outsiders deride our materialism, they call us nekulturny, they joke that the difference between yogurt and California is that yogurt has a living culture.

We can change all this by adding a simple clause to our asset tax code: Works of art are non-taxable. This would result in an explosion of art purchases and patronage. Sculptures, paintings, installations would grace every home and office of substance; artists from all over the world would flock to California, a Villa Medici for the 21st century.

Finally, we have to take care of our abused high-tech workers. Regard the poor Facebook programmers who had to spend yet another night in front of their computers before the IPO. Management profiteers attempt to ennoble this abuse by calling it a hackathon and parading the participants before the media, but we’re not buying it.

Let’s put an end to these destructive and demoralizing practices. Instead of a single 70-hour work week, we’ll create two jobs, hire two employees, each working 35 hours per week. And to promote a serene atmosphere, let’s agree that companies with 50 employees or more will have a “worker council” to oversee decisions such as staffing changes, compensation levels, group activities, layoffs, and the like.

Of course, as with any bold reform, some unintended, counter-productive side-effects may need to be considered.

Let’s start with the asset tax scenario. You work at a successful Valley company, you make good money and decide to help younger entrepreneurs by recycling your gains into their creations. You invest $1M in a startup and get 20% of its shares. As expected, you have to pay the asset tax on that investment, every year. The company attracts new investors at a higher valuation. Great, your initial $1M is now worth, say, $10M…on paper. You will now pay 10 times as much asset tax as before, $50K every year. Unfortunately, after years of valiant struggle, the company shuts down. You lose your investment — and the cumulated asset tax. You would have been better off buying art instead. Less angst, more civic pride (although, admittedly, less investment and innovation, fewer jobs).

You’ve long figured out I’m not serious. A 75% tax bracket, an asset tax, a 35-hour work week and worker councils — such naive measures would create a massive flight of money and talent out of California and into neighboring states that would be delighted to benefit from our boneheaded reforms.

And you’ve also figured out that the measures I’ve outlined, in a slightly oversimplified form, are or will shortly be in force in France. The asset tax is almost 30 years old and its current rate is likely to increase; the 75% income tax bracket is an election campaign promise and, believe it or not, the works-of-art exception is real.

This has resulted in a number of unfortunate countermeasures: High-tech execs pull up stakes and head to London or Brussels; European headquarters move out of Paris and Lyon or are created elsewhere. All because, to paraphrase François de Closets, French demagogues see no difference between Steve Jobs’ fortune and traders’ loot.

The 35-hour work week experiment failed to stanch French unemployment.  The code that complicates the management of companies employing 50 or more people, as Frédéric noted two weeks ago, has resulted in an abnormally high number of companies with 49 workers or less.

From the outside, this is puzzling: Instead of attracting talent and capital, France creates a combination of fact and perception working against the very interests it purports to protect. In addition to the flight of taxable assets, this will accelerate the Brain Drain French officials often rail against. In the US—and particularly in California—we welcome French entrepreneurs, engineers, business people—and money. Do French politicians understand the real world, or will they continue to closet themselves in the French Exception’s virtual reality?

JLG@mondaynote.com

The Apple-Intel-Samsung Ménage à Trois

Fascinating doesn’t do justice to the spectacle, nor to the stakes. Taken in pairs, these giants exchange fluids – products and billion$ – while fiercely fighting with their other half. Each company is the World’s Number One in their domain: Intel in microprocessors, Samsung in electronics, Apple in failure to fail as ordained by the sages.

The ARM-based chips in iDevices come from a foundry owned by Samsung, Apple’s mortal smartphone enemy. Intel supplies x86 chips to Apple and its PC competitors, Samsung included, and would like nothing more than to raid Samsung’s ARM business and make a triumphant Intel Inside claim for Post-PC devices. And Apple would love to get rid of Samsung, its enemy supplier, but not at the cost of losing the four advantages it derives from using the ARM architecture: cost, power consumption, customization and ownership of the design.

At its annual investor day last week, Intel CEO Paul Otellini sounded a bit like a spurned suitor as he made yet another bid for Apple’s iDevices business [emphasis mine]:

“Our job is to insure our silicon is so compelling, in terms off running the Mac better or being a better iPad device, that […] they can’t ignore us.”

This is a bit odd. Intel is Apple’s only supplier of x86 microprocessors; AMD, Intel’s main competitor, isn’t in the picture. How could Apple ‘‘ignore’’ Intel? Au contraire, many, yours truly included, have wondered: Why has Intel ignored Apple’s huge iDevices business?

Perhaps Intel simply didn’t see the wave coming. Steeped in its domination of the PC business — and perhaps listening too much to the dismissive comments of Messrs. Ballmer and Shaw — Intel got stuck knitting one x86 generation after another. The formula wasn’t broken.

Another, and perhaps more believable, explanation is the business model problem. These new ARM chips are great, but where’s the money? They’re too inexpensive, they bring less than a third, sometimes even just a fifth of the price, of a tried and true x86 PC microprocessor. This might explain why Intel sold their ARM business, XScale chips, to Marvell in 2006.

Then there’s the power consumption factor: x86 chips use more watts than an ARM chip. Regardless of price, this is why ARM chips have proliferated in battery-limited mobile devices. Year after year, Intel has promised, and failed, to nullify ARM’s power consumption advantage through their technical and manufacturing might.

2012 might be different. Intel claims ‘‘the x86 power myth is finally busted.” Android phones powered by the latest x86 iteration have been demonstrated. One such device will be made and sold in India, in partnership with a company called Lava International. Orange, the France-based international carrier, also intends to sell an Intel-based smartphone.

With all this, what stops Apple from doing what worked so well for their Macintosh line: Drop ARM (and thus Samsung), join the Intel camp yet again, and be happy forever after in a relationship with fewer participants?

There appear to be a number of reasons to do so.

First, there would be no border war. Unlike Samsung, Intel doesn’t make smartphones and tablets. Intel sells to manufacturers and Apple sells to humans.

Second, the patent front is equally quiet. The two companies have suitable Intellectual Property arrangements and, of late, Intel is helping Apple in its patent fights with Samsung.

Third, if the newer generation of x86 chips are as sober as claimed, the power consumption obstacle will be gone. (But let’s be cautious, here. Not only have we heard these claims before, nothing says that ARM foundries won’t also make progress.)

Finally, Otellini’s ‘‘they can’t ignore us’’ could be decoded as ‘‘they won’t be able to ignore our prices’’. Once concerned about what ARM-like prices would do to its business model, Intel appears to have seen the Post-PC light: Traditional PCs will continue to make technical progress, but the go-go days of ever-increasing volumes are gone. It now sounds like Intel has decided to cannibalize parts of its PC business in order to gain a seat at the smartphone and tablet table.

Just like Apple must have gotten a very friendly agreement when switching the Mac to Intel, one can easily see a (still very hypothetical) sweet deal for low-power x86 chips for iDevices. Winning the iDevices account would put Intel “on the Post-PC map.” That should be worth a suitable price concession.

Is this enough for Apple to ditch Samsung?

Not so fast, there’s one big obstacle left.

Let’s not forget who Samsung is and how they operate. This is a family-controlled chaebol, a gang of extremely determined people whose daring tactics make Microsoft, Oracle, Google, and Apple itself blush. Chairman Lee Kun-hee has been embroiled in various “misunderstandings.” He was convicted (and then pardoned) in a slush fund scandal. The company was caught in cartel arrangements and paid a fine of more than $200M in one case. As part of the multi-lawsuit fight with Apple, the company has been accused of willfully withholding and destroying evidence — and this isn’t their first offense. Samsung look like a determined repeat obstructor of justice. My own observations of Samsung in previous industry posts are not inconsistent with the above. Samsung plays hardball and then some.

This doesn’t diminish Samsung’s achievements. The Korean conglomerate’s success on so many fronts is a testament to the vision, skill, and energy of its leaders and workers. But there has been so much bad blood between Samsung and Apple that one has a hard time seeing even an armed peace between the two companies.

And this doesn’t mean Apple will abandon ARM processors. The company keeps investing in silicon design teams, it has plenty of money, some of which could go into financing parts or the entirety of a foundry for one of Samsung’s competitors in Taiwan (TSMC) or elsewhere in the US, Europe, or Israel. If it’s a strategic move and not just an empty boast on PowerPoint slides, $10B for a foundry is within Apple’s budget.

To its adopters, ARM’s big advantage is customization. Once you have an ARM license, you’ve entered an ecosystem of CAD software and module libraries. You alter the processor design as you wish, remove the parts you don’t need, and add components licensed from third parties. The finished product is a SOC (System On a Chip) that is uniquely yours and more suited to your needs than an off-the-shelf processor from a vendor such as Intel. Customization, licensing chip designs to customers — such moves are not in the Intel playbook, they’re not part of the culture.

I don’t see Apple losing its appetite for customization and ownership, for making its products more competitive by incorporating new functions, such as voice processing and advanced graphics on their SOCs. For this reason alone, I don’t see Apple joining the x86 camp for iDevices. (Nor do I see competitive smartphone makers dropping their SOCs in favor of an Intel chip or chipset.)

Intel isn’t completely out of the game, but to truly play they would need to join the ARM camp, either as a full licensee designing SOCs or as a founder for SOCs engineered by Apple and its competitors.

These are risky times: A false move by any one vertex of the love triangle and tens of billions of dollars will flow in the wrong direction.

JLG@mondaynote.com

Apple: Q2 Thoughts

There was a time when clever individuals could sustain themselves by exploiting people’s ignorance and anxiety. Augurs studied the flight of birds to explain the will of the gods; haruspices practiced divination by inspecting the entrails of sacrificed animals. For fear of bursting into uncontrollable laughter, so the joke goes, the fortune tellers studiously avoided making eye contact with one another in chance street encounters.

Not much has changed.

Our modern-day haruspices, the Wall Street anal-ists, must struggle mightily to keep a straight face (although perhaps not so mightily–they’ve had a lot of practice).

Before Apple’s April 24th earnings release, Wall Street observer Karl Denninger put on his poker face in a Seeking Alpha post:

Profit margins on hardware are very difficult to sustain over 10% for long periods of time. Someone always comes after you and this is not going to be an exception to that rule. But that in turn means that you either must cut your own prices (and margins) to compete or watch your market share get diced up into little tiny pieces by a bunch of guys wielding machetes.

Colorful. And with a disclosure of his own AAPL posture:

Lightly short and more likely to add to that position over time than cover it, eyeing major support in the $400 area.

The entire longish post is enlightening, in a “special” way, as is his September 2010 Seeking Alpha post where he predicted serious trouble for Apple’s new tablet (for which he uses a nickname that, we’ll assume, elicited schoolyard snickers from his cohort in the Tea Party, a group he helped found. New age male sensitivity be damned.) And what was the trouble he saw when he fondled the sheep’s liver? RIMM was “coming after” Apple; they had just announced the QNX-based BlackBerry PlayBook. Don’t laugh.

The idea, here, is that Everything Becomes a Commodity. It’s a common fallacy among the Street watchers, a meme, “a unit for carrying cultural ideas”, in Wikipedia’s words. It’s built on the idea that market forces—competition—will erase all advantages at a “molecular” level. Yesterday, customers were paying more for product A because of some unique feature or service. Tomorrow, a competitor will provide the same (more or less) at a lower price. Commoditization always wins, say the sages. QNX is better than iOS so the PlayBook will, clearly, murder the iPad.

Fun aside, Mr. Denninger is but a member, if that’s the right word, of a class of ideologists who seem to be curiously unaware of their surroundings. Where is the ineluctable commoditization they predict?

It isn’t a new idea. When I landed in Cupertino in 1985, the Pepsi and Playtex marketeers that tagged along with the new CEO insisted that the tech game was over, personal computers are now commodities, marketing would have to do for Apple what the Leo Burnett ad agency had done for Philip Morris with its Marlboro Man campaign.

True, the Marlboro Man was an exemplary marketing success that made a huge monetary difference for an otherwise commodity product. Marlboro didn’t make a “superior” product–blonde non-mentholated 100mm filtered cigarettes are all the same. The only pieces tobacco companies could move across the chess board were imaginary and romanticized.

But high tech isn’t a commodity market. In very French words I told the young commoditizing Turks how wrong they were: Moore’s Law and good software would create the opportunities that make a difference. Commoditization isn’t ineluctable.

Are clothes all the same? Tube socks at Costco, perhaps. But for the rest of our wardrobe, material and cut (and brand) matters.

Food? Do we buy commoditized calories, or do we care for the difference that the quality of ingredients and preparation make? Fresh string beans and asparagus, lightly fried in butter and properly salted—you can’t get that from canned vegetables packed in a margarine sludge, ready to pop into the microwave.

Do we buy cars because they go fast and the wheels are (most of the time) round? I can hear the young Turks claiming that people don’t buy cars, they buy transportation (all while jumping into their BMWs). But when Detroit began putting accountants at the head of car companies, they rode the steep downhill slope of commoditization. That Audi is now one of the most profitable car companies on the planet tells us something about the importance of technology, design, manufacturing, and quality.

I used to refer to BMW as a good example for Apple: Don’t worry too much about market share. A well-made, well-marketed product will see its difference rewarded by the marketplace. And, indeed, BMW became larger than Mercedes Benz. And now we have Audi.

Quality shows, and Apple continues to show quality. Last quarter they enjoyed an incredible 47.4% Gross Margin. Higher than expected and very unusual for a hardware company.

As an ex-entrepreneur and a venture investor, I’m a fan of Gross Margin—it’s what you can spend. Revenue is nice, but it doesn’t tell you when and how much you can eat. Because Apple’s Operating Expenses have become such a small percentage (8.1%) of revenue, Apple’s Operating Margin approaches 40%. As Horace Dediu notes in his Which is best: hardware, software or services? comparison of Apple to Microsoft and Google, this is unusual for a hardware company:

Can this growth continue unabated? Probably not, both Microsoft and Google have shown that there’s a plateau, a margin level that can’t be exceeded. But their examples also show sustainability.

Of course, Apple execs are cautious forecasters. Their much second-guessed guidance for the next quarter calls for “only” 41% Gross Margin, significantly less than last quarter’s. But the commoditization predicted 27 years ago isn’t about to happen.

I’ll quote Horace Dediu’s May 1st post once again:

Apple is the most valuable company in technology (and indeed in the world) because it integrates hardware, software and services. It’s the first, and only, company to do all these three well in service of jobs that the vast majority of consumers want done.

A mere matter of execution…

JLG@mondaynote.com

Apple Is Doomed: The Phony Sony Parallel

In the weeks preceding the April 24th release of Apple’s quarterly earnings, a number of old canards sent the stock down by about 12%: Carriers are going to kill the iPhone Golden Goose by cutting back “exorbitant” subsidies; iPhone sales are down from the previous quarter in the US; inexorable commoditization will soon bring down Apple’s unsustainably high Gross Margin.

The earnings were announced, another strong quarter recorded, and the stock rebounded 9% in one trading session:

At least one doubter is finally convinced: Henry “The iPhone Is Dead In the Water” Blodget has become an Apple cheerleader, penning a post titled Yes, You Should Be Astonished By Apple. (Based on Henry’s record, should we now worry about the new object of his veneration?)

There has never been a dearth of Apple doomsayers. The game has been going on for more than 30 years, and now we have a new contestant: George Colony, an eminent industry figure, the Founder and CEO of Forrester Research, a global conglomerate of technology and market research companies.

Mr. Colony, an influential iPad fan, maintains a well-written blog titled The Counterintuitive CEO in which he shares his thoughts on events such as the Davos Forum, trends in Web technology and usage, and, in a brief homage, his hope that “Steve’s lessons will bring about a better world”.

We now turn to his April 25th post, Apple = Sony.

There are two problems with the piece: The application of a turgid, 100-year old “typology of organizations” that’s hardly relevant to today’s business scene, and an amazingly wrong-headed view of Sony and its founder, Akio Morita.

Colony offers the banal prediction that others have been making for a very long time, well before Dear Leader’s demise: With Steve Jobs gone, Apple won’t be the same and, sooner or later, it will slide into mediocrity. It happened to Sony after Morita, it’ll happen to Apple.

In an act of Obfuscation Under The Color Of Authority, Colony digs up (nearly literally) sociologist Max Weber to bolster his contention. Weber died in 1920; the 1947 work that Colony refers to, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, is a translation-cum-scholarly commentary and adaptation of work that was published posthumously by Weber’s widow Marianne in 1921 and 1922.

From Weber’s work, Colony extracts the following typology of organizations:

1. Legal/bureaucratic (think IBM or the U.S. government),
2. Traditional (e.g., the Catholic Church)
3. Charismatic (run by special, magical individuals).

This is far too vague; these types are (lazily) descriptive, but they’re fraught with problematic examples, particularly in the third category: Murderous dictatorships and exploitative sects come to mind. What distinguishes these from Apple under Jobs? Moreover, how do these categories help us understand today’s global, time-zone spanning rhizome (lattice) organizations where power and information flow in ways that Weber couldn’t possibly have imagined a hundred years ago?

Having downloaded the book, I understand the respect it engenders: It’s a monumental, very German opus, a mother lode of gems such as the one Colony quotes:

Charisma can only be ‘awakened’ and ‘tested’; it cannot be ‘learned’ or ‘taught.’

True. The same can be said of golf. But it does little to explain the actual power structure of organizations such as Facebook and Google.

Instead of shoehorning today’s high-tech organizations into respectable but outdated idea systems, it would behoove a thought leader of Mr. Colony’s stature to provide genuine 21st century scholarship that sheds light on – and draws actionable conclusions from — the kind of organization Apple exemplifies. What’s the real structure and culture, what can we learn and apply elsewhere? How did a disheveled, barefoot company become a retail empire run with better-than-military precision, the nonpareil of supply chain management, the most cost effective R&D organization of its kind and size? And, just as important, are some of these marvels coupled too tightly to the Steve Jobs Singularity? That would be interesting — and would certainly rise above the usual “Charismatic Leader Is Gone” bromides.

Now let’s take a look at the other half of the title’s equivalence: Sony.This is Muzak thinking. It confuses the old and largely disproven brand image with what Sony actually was inside — even under Morita’s “charismatic” leadership.

I used to be an adoring Sony customer, bowing to Trinitron TVs and Walkman cassette players. But after I got to see inside the kitchen (or kitchens) in 1986, I was perplexed and, over time, horrified.

Contrary to what Colony writes, there was no “post-Morita” decadence at Sony. The company had long been spiritually dead by the time of the founder’s brain hemorrhage. The (too many) limbs kept moving but there had been no central power, no cohesive strategy, no standards, no unifying culture for a very long time.

Sony survived as a set of fiefdoms. Great engineers in many places. (And, to my astonishment, primitive TV manufacturing plants.) During Morita’s long reign, Sony went into all sorts of directions: music, movie-making, games, personal computers, phones, cameras, robots… For reasons of cultural (one assumes), Sony consistently showed an abysmal lack of appreciation for software, leaving the field to Microsoft, Nokia for a while, and then Google and Apple.

Under Akio Morita’s leadership, Sony took advantage of Japan’s lead in high-quality device manufacturing and became the masters of what we used to call the Japanese Food Fight: Throw everything against the wall and see what sticks. When the world moved to platforms and then to ecosystems, Sony’s device-oriented culture — and the fiefdoms it fostered — brought it to its current sorry state.

Today, would you care to guess what Sony’s most profitable business is? Financial Services:

How this leads to an = sign between Apple and Sony evades me.

This isn’t to say that Apple can’t be contaminated by the toxicity of success, or that the spots of mediocrity we can discern here and there (and that were present when Steve was around) won’t metastasize into full blown “bozo cancer”. But for those interested in company cultures, the more interesting set of questions starts with how Apple will “Think Different” from now on. Jobs was adamant: His successors had to think for themselves, they were told to find their own true paths as opposed to aping his.

From a distance, it appears that Tim Cook isn’t at all trying to be Jobs 2.0. But to call his approach “legal/bureaucratic” (in the Weber sense), as Colony does, is facile and misplaced.

If we insist on charisma as a must for leading Apple, one ought to remember that there’s more than one type of charisma. There’s the magnetic leader whose personality exudes an energy that flows through the organization. And then there’s the “channeling” leader, the person who facilitates and directs the organization’s energy.

Is the magnetic personality the only valid leader for Apple?

JLG@mondaynote.com

[I won’t let the canards cited at the beginning go unmolested. See upcoming Monday Notes.]

Nokia: Three Big Problems

Nokia’s results for Q1 2012 are in: They’re not good. (See the earnings release here, Management’s Conference Call presentation here.)

Compared to the same quarter last year, Nokia overall revenue is down 29%, to $9.7B. And the company is now losing money, $1.8B, 18.5% of revenue. [Nokia’s official numbers are stated in euros, I convert them at today’s rate of $1.32 for 1€.]

One year after Nokia’s decision to jump of its “burning platform”, this yet another bad quarter and leaves one to wonder about the company’s future. Many, like Forbes’ Erik Savitz, think The Worst Is Still To Come.

I see three life-threatening problems for the deposed king of mobile phones.

First and potentially most lethal: Nokia is burning cash. As the chart above documents, Nokia’s Net Cash went down 24% in one year. From page 5 of the Earnings Release: “Year-on-year, net cash and other liquid assets decreased by $2B…. Sequentially [emphasis added], net cash and other liquid assets decreased by $.9B”. Here, the word sequentially means compared to the immediately preceding quarter, as opposed to the same quarter last year.
Elsewhere in the document, on page 6, we learn Microsoft provided $250M in “platform support payments”. If you back this amount out, you see Nokia’s operations have in fact consumed $1.15B, a significant fraction of the company’s $6.4B Net Cash. This cannot continue for very long and leads Henry Blodget to worry Nokia could go bankrupt in two years or less.
Henry’s view might be a bit extreme; Nokia has assets they could convert to cash, thus giving itself more runway for its recovery efforts. But, as we’ll see below, the company’s prospects in both phone categories don’t look stellar. And bad things happen to cash when the market loses confidence in a company’s future: vendors want to be paid more quickly, customers become more hesitant, all precipitating a crisis.

Second, the dumbphone (a.k.a. “Mobile Phones”) business, still Nokia’s largest, is now in a race to the bottom:

Volume is huge, 70.8M units; it dipped 16%, not a good sign. Worse, the ASP (Average Selling Price) went down 18% to $44 (33€). Mostly in developing countries, Nokia is now losing ground to the likes of Huawei and ZTE selling feature phones and smartphones, both very inexpensive. Unsurprisingly, Nokia claims they’ll counterattack with their Asha family of mobile phones. Few, outside of Nokia, or even inside, believe they can win a brutal price cutting fight against those adversaries.

Last, Nokia’s last hope: Their new Windows Phone “Smart Devices”.

As the chart above shows, Nokia’s smartphone business keeps sinking: -51% in volume compared to the same quarter last year. And, with a $189 (143€) ASP, it can’t make any significant money as $189 is about what it costs to build one.

As for the latest Lumia smartphones, the reviews have been mixed. So are sales, according to Stephen Elop, Nokia’s CEO. Going to the earnings release, I searched for the word “Lumia” in the document. It appears 29 times. — without any number attached to it, just words like “encouraging awards and popular acclaim”. Which can only mean one thing: Actual numbers better left unsaid.

Things don’t get better when, according to Reuters, mobile carriers in Europe pronounced themselves ‘‘unconvinced”, finding the new Lumia smartphones “not good enough”. It is worth noting things could be better in the US where AT&T appears to make a real effort selling Lumias, and where Verizon recently stated its interest in fostering a third ecosystem with Windows Phone devices.

Unfortunately, we also hear a puzzling rumor: Existing Lumia phones wouldn’t be upgradable to the next OS version, Windows Phone 8, code-named Apollo. Both Mary Jo Foley, a recognized authority on things Microsoft, and The Verge, an aggressive and often well-sourced blog, support that theory.

So far, in spite of the potential damage to their business, neither Microsoft nor Nokia have seen fit to comment. Should it be true, should current Lumia buyers find themselves unable to upgrade their software, Microsoft would be about to commit a massive blunder.

But why would they do this? Apparently, the current Windows Phone OS is built on the venerable Windows CE kernel. Setting veneration aside, Microsoft would have decided to use a more modern foundation for Windows Phone 8. And said modern foundation would not run on today’s hardware. For Nokia’s sake, I hope this is incorrect. The company already convinced its customer Symbian-based phones had no future. Sales plunged as a result. Doing the same thing for today’s Lumia devices would be even more dangerous.

A little over a year ago, in February 2011, Nokia’s brand-new CEO, Stephen Elop issued his ‘‘memorable” Burning Platform memo. In it, the ex-Microsoft executive made an excellent point: Having no doubt observed the rise of Google’s Android and of Apple’s iOS, he concluded Nokia was no longer in a fight of devices but in a war of ecosystems. Elop next drew an analogy between Nokia’s jumbled smartphone product line and a burning North Sea oil-drilling rig. To him, the company had no choice: instead of staying on the platform and dying in the blaze, he suggested plunging in freezing waters — with a chance of staying alive. Which, as he soon revealed, meant jumping off Nokia’s Symbian and Meego software platforms and joining the Microsoft Windows Phone ecosystem.

Today, Nokia bleeds cash, its dumbphone business in a race to the bottom, and its plunge into the Microsoft ecosystem isn’t off to a good start. What’s next for the company? Can it turn itself around, and how?

With hindsight, it appears the premature announcement of the jump to Windows Phone osborned Nokia’s existing smartphones. Their sales dropped while the market waited for the new devices running Windows Phone. Some, like Tomi Ahonen, an unusually vocal — and voluminous — blogger, think Elop should be fired, and Symbian and Meego restored to their just place in Nokia’s product line. This isn’t very realistic.

Closer to reality is Microsoft’s determination to get back in the smartphone race, almost at any cost. (For reference look at the billions the company keeps losing in its online business. $449M this past quarter.)

At some point in time, if Lumia sales still barely move the needle, Microsoft would have to either drop Nokia and look for another vehicle for Windows Phone. Or it will have to assume full control of Nokia, pare down what it doesn’t need, and do what it does for the Xbox, that is be in charge of everything: hardware, software, applications.

JLG@mondaynote.com

iTunes’ Windows Problem

The best thing that happened to Apple in the last two decades was Steve Jobs’ 1997 return to power after he reversed-acquired the company he’d co-founded 20 years before.
And the best thing that has happened in the Apple 2.0 era is iTunes.

Without iTunes’ innovative micropayment system and its new way of selling songs one at a time, the iPod would have been just another commodity MP3 player. Instead, the iPod became Apple’s “halo product” and the genre’s king, with a lasting dominant market share (70% or more) and, in 2006, surpassing the Macintosh in revenues: $7.7B vs. $7.4B.

The iTunes-powered iPod rescued the company’s image. Then teetering on the edge of insignificance, Apple came to be perceived as a serious contender.

This was nothing compared to the contribution iTunes was about to make to the iPhone. A song is simply a string of zeroes and ones, so is an app; the only difference is the destination directory (I am, of course, simplifying a bit, here). The well-debugged iTunes infrastructure turned out to be a godsend for the new Jesus Phone: The smartphone became an “app phone” and the rest of the industry followed suit. iTunes App Store downloads now surpass music traffic:

But…

Today, the toxic waste of success cripples iTunes. There are times when I feel that iTunes has reached Windows Vista bloatware proportions: Increasingly non-sensical complexity, inconsistencies, layers of patches over layers of patches ending up in a structure so labyrinthine no individual can internalize it any longer. (Just like the Tax Code.)

iTunes’ metastasis happened naturally as it tried to incorporate new packaging and delivery systems. The media — music, videos, apps — is no longer the message. iTunes gives you TV seasons, college courses, audiobooks, podcasts; it passes files between Macs and iPads, syncs devices, uploading and downloading everything through the Cloud…and should we mention Ping, the unfortunate attempt at “social”?

iTunes has turned into an operating system — kludgier and uglier than many — a role it was never meant to fill.

This criticism might sound excessive. Apple is doing obscenely well, Mac and iDevices show impressive growth, the stock keeps climbing. Why worry about iTunes? Business is great!

That’s the line RIM and Nokia execs once took.

On the music side, do we like looking for music, managing it, fixing inexplicably broken playlists? Do we care for bizarre recommendations from the Genius? (No connection with the really helpful ones in Apple Stores.) Buying music from Amazon is easier, more informative, more pleasant — and downloads drop right into my iTunes library.

Admittedly, managing apps has become much easier…if you use WiFi sync to a Mac or PC where the larger screen helps when you’re sorting through dozens of programs (I’ll confess that I hoard a mere 170 apps…). But it still feels like it falls short of what an independent module, with its own tools and UI, should be able to do.

Things take a turn for the worse when it comes to transferring files between, say, an iPad and a Mac. The It Just Works motto doesn’t apply. While Keynote documents sync automagically between an iPad and an iPhone, there’s no such love between the iPad and the Mac. iTunes offers a kludgy solution, semi-hidden at the bottom of the Apps section, although I doubt anyone uses this method. E-mail and DropBox are faster.

The rumors of a new iTunes version (perhaps called 11, a versioning number increment that signals a major update) have rekindled criticism of the aging giant and invited suggestions for fixes or more radical structural changes. For a sampling, see iTunes: Time to right the syncing shipErica Sadun’s TUAW post, and a counterpoint by Scott P. Hall who thinks ‘iTunes is well structured, and easy to use’. Most of us agree with pointed put-downs such as these (from Jason Snell):

Apple has packed almost everything involving media (and app) management, purchase, and playback into this single app. It’s bursting at the seams. It’s a complete mess. And it’s time for an overhaul.

….

And let’s be honest: iTunes is at its worst when it comes to app management. The app-management interface in iTunes is ridiculously slow. iTunes can fill up your hard drive with tens of gigabytes of iOS apps that can easily be downloaded from Apple. Syncing apps frequently destroys folders and makes apps disappear. The interface that shows where the app icons will appear on your iOS device is unstable, unreliable, and inefficient.

…and from Erica Sadun (emphasis added):

iTunes is an unwieldy behemoth, slowly suffocating from its own size and age.

….

Forget about launching iTunes: music browsing and playlist selection (not to mention creation) needs to migrate into Spotlight (or some similar always-on feature). Tunes should be part of the computing experience, not a separate app.

Let’s hope that “iTunes 11” does more than move furniture around and add another layer of patches. Personally, I’d vote for breaking it down into separate modules such as Music, Video, and Apps. This wouldn’t rub against the Apple grain: There’s the everything-in-one-app Outlook philosophy, and then there’s the Apple practice of separating Mail, Address Book, and iCal. Also, breaking up the iTunes “monopoly” would make fixes and upgrades more manageable.

But there are two possible flaws in this line of thinking.

First, it assumes that the iTunes problem is confined to the client app, to the software we run on our desktops and devices. This isn’t likely to be the case. We’re no longer in the era of PC desktop software where patiently redoing the Mac OS foundation got us OS X. It’s almost certain that many of the iTunes problems we experience in the client actually come from poorly designed applications in Apple’s Cloud, running on noble but out-of-date architectures such as WebObjects.

A possibly more significant impediment is Apple’s “Windows problem”. As Allen Pike explains on his blog (pointed to by John Gruber), Windows is iTunes’ ball and chain (emphasis added):

[…] they can’t split iTunes into multiple apps because many, if not most iOS users are on Windows. iTunes is Apple’s one and only foothold on Windows, so it needs to support everything an iOS device owner could need to do with their device. Can you imagine the support hurricane it would cause if Windows users suddenly needed to download, install, and use 3-4 different apps to sync and manage their media on their iPhone? It’s completely out of the question.

I remember my surprise when I bought my first iPod mini and saw iTunes software running on Windows. Imagine, Apple writing Windows software! Good UI, runs well, doesn’t feel like a dragging-one’s-feet port. But there’s a price: Some of the iTunes problems might stem from its use of cross-platform development tools, an approach that encourages (and sometimes insists on) a least common denominator experience. (I just checked, iTunes on Windows is very close to the Mac version.)

Allen Pike is right: iTunes, or its successor, must run on Windows. But I don’t see how that’s an unbearable burden on Apple, especially in light of the economics involved. If cross-platform tools are too limiting, Apple could develop “separate but equal’’ versions of iTunes as a way to keep selling iDevices to Windows users. (On this topic, the iPhone/iPad maker has done a much better job catering to Windows users than what RIM/Blackberry and Nokia have done for Mac users.)

Let’s hope Apple doesn’t become complacent, that they aren’t blinded by iTunes’ spectacular numbers. Let’s hope they deliver a really Apple-like iTunes experience. Paraphrasing a grand departed French politician, I like iTunes so much I want five of them.

JLG@mondaynote.com

Apple: The End Is Nigh

The end of iPhone/iPad One Size Fits All, that is. So far, Apple has managed to sell more than 300M iOS devices using only a single size for the iPhone and another for the iPad. I’m becoming convinced this can’t last much longer. Soon, I believe, we’ll see a range of physically distinct iPhone and iPad models.

I’m coming to this conclusion from three angles.

Let me start with an analogy by anecdote. It’s 1974, I’m sitting across the street from Burberry’s Haymarket emporium in London watching a gaggle of tourists come out of the store, each wearing the same dark blue raincoat and distinctive Burberry scarf. Once an icon of British gentility (as perceived by non-Brits), the commissariat of trench coats, scarves, and other country squire accoutrements, Burberry had lost their cachet by sticking to a taste-numbing repetition. The company that had invented a true 20th century oxymoron — the mass-marketing of exclusivity – had lost the plot.

Louis Vuitton, on the other hand, is the epitome of the oxymoron. Vuitton stays on top of its game by ceaselessly coming up with product permutations that combine the differentiation customers need without losing the brand identity they crave.

For the past three weeks I’ve been traveling in the US, France, and Spain. In Spain, particularly, I was struck by the number of iPhones I saw in street cafés, airport lounges, hotels, and restaurants. One high-end eatery in Palma de Mallorca equips its waiters with iPod Touches on which they show pictures of dishes to patrons and, with a tap, take their orders. I’m generally careful about drawing conclusions from such anecdotal samplings –they might not be representative of a broader reality — but when I returned to the Valley, I heard a Marketplace® story (audio and transcript) that confirmed my observation: Spaniards are so taken with their iPhones that they’d rather cut other expenses amid the severe economic crisis than go without this indispensable component of their identity.

How long before customers look left, look right, see everyone with the same phone or tablet and start itching for something different? My friend Peter Yared contends that the trend has already started in the UK where the “18-25 class” now favors the smorgasbord of Samsung devices as a relief from the iPhone uniform.

And, lest we think this preoccupation with fashion identity is beneath Apple’s Olympian taste, a look at the shelves of Cupertino’s Hypergalactic Company Store will bring us back to Earth:

We can argue that one-size-fits-all simplicity has served Apple well. I hear one European retail magnate deplore Apple’s inflexible (he actually said ‘‘totalitarian’’) policies even as he marvels at the low number of SKUs (distinct product references) that have produced Apple’s monstrous revenue. (A connoisseur, he also envies Apple stores where, as he put it, the cash register follows the customer.)

But Apple has long ceased to be marginal, on the brink of disaster, imprudently challenging established giants. Apple has become a dominant brand whose rise to ubiquity now requires a differentiation it didn’t need in pre-iOS years.

For the iPhone, how will differentiation manifest itself without veering into capricious, superficial variation?

Screen size? We know the key argument against a significantly bigger screen: Our thumb needs to reach across the entire surface for one-hand operation, a requirement widely held as non-negotiable. As for a smaller screen, the loss of functionality, app compatibility trouble, and touch-UI difficulties make “downsizing” improbable.

Shape? The elegant iPhone 4/4S industrial design is by no means obsolete. I personally consider it a classic, more so than the earlier, less innovative design. Still, alternatives will expand the iPhone’s appeal, communicate newness and differentiation.

Another angle concerns the iPad. Unit sales are climbing faster than the iPhone and sameness is — or soon will be — an issue. There’s an “obvious” solution: Our old friend, the rumored 7” tablet (measured on the diagonal).

In an August 2009 Monday Note discussing Apple tablet gossip, I went so far as to measure the width of men’s jacket pockets (5.5” to 6”, typically) and concluded that a 7” (diagonal) tablet would be nice. But I’m prejudiced, I like small computers. I loved my Toshiba Libretto and yearned for a similarly-sized MacBook. I’d given up on the prospect of a “MacBook Nano,” but I still had hopes for a pocketable tablet.

Wiser minds prevailed and we got the 9.7” iPad.

Still, the yearning for a smaller tablet wouldn’t die. In October 2010, when queried about a smaller iPad during the Q4 earnings conference call Q&A, Steve Jobs famously dismissed the idea, saying “7-inch tablets should come with sandpaper so users can file down their fingers.” Behold the nerve — and the lack of same in the audience! No one thought of asking about the iPhone’s even smaller screen.

Seriously, what Jobs probably meant was that a simple reduction in the size of the tablet screen would mean a proportional diminution of the size of UI elements, a brute force solution Apple had avoided by allowing – and encouraging — device-specific resources. (As we know now, no one really uses iPhone apps in 2X mode on an iPad.)

Also, we ought to remember notable Jobsian ‘‘statements of misdirection’’: No video on the iPod; No body reads anymore (pre-iPad). And the vintage 2007  category winner: No native apps on the iPhone, use Web 2.0 technology!

When thinking about the insistent 7” iPad rumors, I start to worry that iOS developers will have to write or adapt their apps to a third target, the “iPad Nano”. (Don’t hold me to that monicker, I was sure the latest iPad would be called iPad HD, for its high definition Retina screen…) But when I consider the foreseeable volume for a smaller iPad, I become a bit more optimistic: Would multiples of 10M units sold in the first year induce a developer to invest in a new version? Very likely, yes.

Even more encouraging is this clever twist unearthed by A.T. Faust III in a March 21st blog post. If you shrink the original 9.7”, 1024×768 iPad display to a 7.8” diagonal screen, you end up with a 163 ppi (pixels per inch) display, higher than the original, lower than the new iPad (264 ppi), and exactly half the iPhone 4/4S (326). Most relevant, according to A.T Faust, 163 ppi is the exact pixel density of the first iPhone…which means that app developers won’t necessarily have to retool everything in their UI libraries. And the hypothetical 7” iPad would easily fit in a 5.5” -wide jacket pocket:

Lastly, there’s another reason for Apple to forget the sandpaper and, instead, throw sand into Amazon’s and Google’s (purported) 7” tablet gears. From the very beginning of the iPad and its surprising low $499 entry price, it’s been clear that Apple wants to conquer the tablet market and maintain an iPod-like share for the iPad. Now that Apple has become The Man, the company might have to adopt the Not A Single Crack In The Wall strategy used by the previous occupant of the hightech throne.

JLG@mondaynote.com

While we wait, futilely perhaps, I’ve decided to do a bit of field research and bought a Samsung ‘‘phablet’’, the Galaxy Note, this after giving my 7” Kindle Fire to one of our children. The Note’s screen is a mere 5”, an attempt to combine a phone and a tablet — with an “unmentionable” stylus. I’ll report back in a few weeks.

RIM’s Future: Dead, Alive, Reborn?

Much has been written about RIM’s gloomy quarterly numbers, most of it sensible (with one brain flatulence exception). The attention is a testament—an apt word—to the place RIM once occupied. From its humble pager origins, the BlackBerry, rightly nicknamed CrackBerry, became the de rigueur device of enterprise users. Like most former BlackBerry fans, I have my own fond memories of its world-class mail/contacts/calendar PIM service and of the impeccable OTA (Over The Air) synchronization that freed my wife from her Palm USB cable and HotSync travails.

As always, Horace Dediu digests the numbers for us, adds insight, and comes up with a somber conclusion (emphasis added):

The selection of tools for workers by a group that claims to understand their needs better than they do is an archaic concept.
This was true even in 2005 when RIM began targeting consumers. It was then that they saw the writing on the wall–that their enterprise business was being commoditized. All of RIM’s growth since has been in consumer segments. By abandoning that trajectory RIM is effectively giving up on growth. And giving up on growth is simply giving up.

For the first time in seven years, RIM lost money, $125M; revenue is down 25% from a year ago; unit volume decreased by 11% from the previous quarter. The only somewhat positive sign is that cash increased by $610M leaving RIM with $2.1B in its coffers, a fact preeminently featured in their press release. The message is clear: Look, we’ve got plenty of cash to last us until “late 2012” when we’ll be back with new BB10-powered smartphones.

This is a dubious proposition.

RIM will undoubtedly undergo another two or three quarters of marketshare erosion and losses. Last quarter’s combination of positive cash flow in spite of losses can’t be repeated indefinitely, there’s only so much inventory you can liquidate—at a loss—before you see the bottom of the cash register.

This isn’t to say that Thorsten Heins, RIM’s new CEO, isn’t making an effort, starting with housecleaning: Much to everyone’s relief, former co-CEO Jim Balsillie is “severing all ties with the BlackBerry maker” after a brief stay on the Board when dethroned in January. Jim Rowan, the former co-COO (Heins was the other half before becoming CEO), is also leaving RIM. More significantly, software CTO David Yach is sailing away after 13 years at the helm. Nobody accused RIM of making poor quality hardware, it’s the outmoded and late software that fell the smartphone leader.

For too long, RIM execs (and not just David Yach) didn’t heed the software threat from Google and Apple, they thought their enterprise franchise was impregnable. But by 2010, reality could no longer be ignored; RIM panicked and looked for an OS to replace their aging software engine. They found QNX, a UNIX-like system hatched at the University of Waterloo next door and used by its then-owner, Harman International, for real-time audio and infotainment embedded applications. Dating from the early eighties, QNX is mature and well-tested — but no more adept as a smartphone OS than a vanilla Linux distro. Certainly, you’ll find Linux code at the bottom of the Android stack, but what makes Android successful are its thick, rich layer of frameworks that are indispensable to application developers.

When RIM bought QNX from Harman, the OS offered little or nothing of such vital smartphone app frameworks. David Yach’s team had to build them from the ground up (or, perhaps, adapt some from the Open Source world). This doesn’t happen quickly—ask Google why they acquired Android, or look at Apple’s years of stealth iOS development based on its own OS X. The difficulty in engineering a fully-functional foundation on which to build competitive apps explains why RIM’s “Amateur Hour Is Over” PlayBook tablet lacked a native email client when it was released last spring. And this is why the new BB10 phones are slated for ‘‘late 2012”. By that time, Samsung and Apple will have newer software and hardware—and an even larger market share.

The trouble for RIM is simply stated: Too little too late, while the money runs out. If only the cure were as easily put.

We won’t dwell on the contrast between what Heins said in his first press conference as CEO in January (“Stay the Course”) and the changes he now claims are necessary. He has had time to assess the situation and has declared “We Can’t Be All Things To All People”, by which he means abandoning consumer-oriented multimedia initiatives, a retreat Horace Dediu equates to a wholesale giving up on growth, to becoming hopeless.

For my part, I can’t help but wonder: What did Thorsten Heins see, say, and do since he joined RIM in 2007, right when the Jesus Phone came out? At the time, as his bio points out, he was Senior VP of the BlackBerry Handheld Business unit…

Today, RIM’s new CEO isn’t looking away. In public statements last week, he made it clear that all options are on the table. We can ignore the possibility that RIM might find licensees for its OS (what OS?). This leaves RIM with a single option: Sell the company…but to whom? Asus, Samsung, HTC? Why not ZTE and Huawei while we’re at it? None of this makes sense, these are not necrophiliac companies, they’re happily riding Android.

Disregard the talk of buying RIM for its alleged patent portfolio. This is the company that, after years of fight, had to pay NTP more than $600M, and Visto more than $260M in patent settlements. In any event, as the Nortel example shows, one can buy patents without getting saddled with the company.

Of course, there is one intriguing possibility left: Microsoft could do to RIM what it did to Nokia. They could convince RIM to abandon its unlikely-to-succeed “native” software effort and become the second prong in Microsoft’s effort to regain significance in the smartphone wars. We can picture the headlines: RIM Joins Nokia in Adopting Windows Phone, Microsoft Now Firmly Back in the Race…

We’ll soon know if Microsoft, after toying a few times with a RIM acquisition, now finds a more realistic management team and Board sitting across from them at the negotiating table.

JLG@mondaynote.com

Apple Phlebotomy

The treatment for the blood disease called Polycythemia Vera (the name means “too many red cells”) goes back to the Dark Ages: Lance a vein and relieve the patient of a pint of blood. Phlebotomy treats the symptom but not the condition. There is no known cure; the blood-letting must be repeated indefinitely.

This is what comes to mind when I see how Apple intends to treat its Polycashemia Vera, its “too many greenbacks” problem. Over the next few years, Apple will bleed off $45B of excess cash through a combination of dividend payouts of $2.65/share per quarter and stock repurchase of $10B over three years. (Also, as Tim Cook has stated, the buyback is a means to “undilute” Apple employees’ stock grants. Horace Dediu has a perceptive analysis here.)

But why get rid of the excess cash? How dangerous is it? And what exactly is “excess”?

This is a matter of animated (and occasionally silly) debate.

On one side, you have die-hard company supporters who argue that there’s no such thing as too much cash, you never know what the future holds. Management should ignore the “evil Wall Street speculators” who call for dividends and stock buybacks, jeopardizing the company’s future just to line their pockets.

On the other side, shareholders (or, more accurately, the Wall Street fund managers who represent them) get nervous when a company’s cash reserves far exceed its operational needs (plus a rainy day fund). Management might develop a case of “acquisition fever,” an investment banker-borne contagion that breeds a lust to buy shiny objects for ego aggrandizement.

It’s a rational concern, and while Apple’s performance and cautious spending habits gives management a great deal of credibility, a cash reserve that’s rapidly approaching a full year of revenue (let alone operating expenses) became “really too much” and led to last week’s $45B announcement.

The $45B figure is impressive…but will it be enough to treat this chronic condition?

In Fiscal Year 2011, Apple grew its cash balance by $31B. Using very conservative growth estimates — well below the rates we’ve come to expect from Apple —we’ll assume an additional $40B for FY 2012, $50B in 2013, $60B in 2014…that’s another $150B. Even after the $45B phlebotomy, Apple’s mattress will swell by another $100B in the next three years, to a total of about $200B.

The patient will require repeated blood-lettings.

A gaggle of observers would like to remind us of their version of the Law of Large Numbers; not the statistical LLN, but the one that says, using a simple example, that while 50% growth is relatively easy for a $10M business, it’s nearly impossible at the $100B level. And, yet, this is very much what’s in store for Apple in FY 2012. With Q1 revenue of $46B already in the books we can expect the annual figure to peg at roughly $180B. (This isn’t a wild guess: AAPL pretty much sticks to the FY 20ZZ = 4 x Q1 FY 20ZZ formula.)

$180B would be an astonishing 70% increase in revenue compared to FY 2011 ($108B). Astonishing but not surprising; it simply continues a trend: 2011, the first full year of the iPad, was 66% above 2010, which was 52% above 2009. Even in the midst of the financial cataclysm, Apple’s 2009 numbers showed a 14% increase over 2008, which showed a “customary” 52% increase over 2007, the year of the Jesus Phone. FY 2007, in which the iPhone contributed a smallish $483M, generated a “mere” 28% revenue increase above 2006, the memorable year when iPod revenue surpassed Macintosh sales, $7.7B vs. $7.4B.

One conclusion sticks out: Apple has escaped the lay version of the LLN because it repeatedly breaks into new categories. The “foundation” Macintosh business couldn’t fuel such growth.

Can this last? Can Apple create (or co-opt) another $100B category, add a fourth member to its iTrio: iPod, iPhone, iPad? The rumored Apple iTV (whether it’s the black puck or a “magical” HDTV set) is offered as a candidate for another iPhone/iPad disruption. I’m skeptical. As discussed here and here, I don’t believe Apple can turn TV into another $100B iMotherlode. Unless, of course, Apple comes up with a $650 ASP (Average Selling Price) black puck that will be enticing enough to be bought in iPhone numbers and renewed as frequently. This would require content and (cable) carrier deals for which Apple’s cash might bend the wills of content and transportation providers.

Another possibility, advanced by a friend of mine, would be for Apple to disrupt the digital camera business. Not in the way the iPhone has already eaten into the “snapshot” market, but by offering a real, non-phone camera, with bigger sensors, lenses, and, as a result, bigger body. While technically far from impossible, a look at Canon’s and Nikon’s books shows this isn’t a $100B sector. Canon’s total revenue, including printers and professional non-camera optics, is $44B, with fairly thin margins (COGS in the 70% neighborhood); Nikon’s revenue is about $1B. Too small to move Apple’s needle.

So where does Apple turn for the next big iThing? Perhaps they don’t need to “turn,” at all. Recall Tim Cook’s oft-repeated party line: All our businesses have plenty of headroom.

Read the transcripts of past conference calls (here, here and here, courtesy of Seeking Alpha) or assay Cook’s recent appearance at a Goldman Sachs conference. The mantra is clear: We have a small market share in the huge smartphone segment; iPad sales are growing even faster than the iPhone’s; Mac revenue is growing at a healthy 25% pace in the (still) huge traditional PC market.

Up to the advent of what I can’t help call the Apple Anomaly, we had two bins for companies.

Bin One held stable companies, businesses with modest, predictable growth rates. As they didn’t require huge amounts of money to feed the engine, much of their cash flow was returned to shareholders as dividends. And, when they needed cash for inventories or plants, they could borrow it, issue bonds providing ‘‘guaranteed’’ income (I simplify).

Bin One stocks are boringly/pleasantly predictable.

Bin Two companies are ‘‘hot’’, fast-growing high-tech businesses. They require lots of cash, most often harvested on the stock market. Cash-flow and future requirements are such they rarely issue a dividend.

Bin Two stocks are pleasantly/dangerously hot.

Apple straddles both bins: it generates obscene amounts of cash and it still grows much faster than the rest of the high-tech world.

Summarizing Tim Cook’s position: Yes, we’ll pay dividends and buy shares back. And No: We have no intention of becoming a stodgy Bin One company.

Apple’s CEO implicitly assumes the people he leads will continue to come up with winners in each category, an assumption respectively disputed and wholeheartedly endorsed by the usual suspects. So far, doomsayers haven’t had a great run. But just you wait, they say: In The Long Run Apple Will Fail. They will be right, of course, but when?

In the meantime, the company is still left with a $100B cash “problem.”

This must be by design: Apple’s Board could dial cash down to, say, a healthy $40B. Why not do so?

One possible explanation is that Apple is playing a game of “projection,” they’re creating the perception that they can buy or do anything they want: Wage a price war against Samsung, corner the supply of critical components and force competitors to pay more, create a second source for key modules, buy major distribution channels.

The problem with such speculations is that Apple is already doing some of the above. For example, keeping the intuitively more expensive (display, battery, LTE module) new iPad at the same price points as the iPad 2 continues the price war Apple started with the original iPad’s surprising $499 pricetag.

Also, Apple has already disclosed that it has committed some of its cash as forward payments to suppliers. And strategically creating or even buying a semi-conductor plant to cut Samsung off won’t cost tens of billions. For reference, the latest Intel fabs cost in the neighborhood of $5B each. In any event, one can’t see Apple’s culture adapting to the esoteric semi-conductor manufacturing sector.

This leaves distribution. Could the company acquire, say, Best Buy or an international equivalent? These companies are (relatively) inexpensive: Best Buy’s market cap is less than $10B —for a reason: lousy margins that, in theory, Apple could prop up. But, in reality, hese are complicated businesses and would be a nightmare to restructure: Imagine getting rid of all the brands, pruning and retraining staff. Highly implausible.

We know Apple’s business model: Make and sell high-margin hardware, rinse and repeat every year, everything else is in service to the elegant hardware experience of the Dear Customer. If we stick to our search for places to invest $100B, we’re left with a big question mark.

The only scenario left for the big number is a hedge against political risk in China or against an economic Nuclear Winter. Apple would use its cash reserve to pull through and reemerge even stronger than its competitors.

JLG@mondaynote.com