business models

Religion is a safer bet than Facebook

 

Facebook’s incredible global reach and success appear to forestall challenges. In the long run, though, the social network’s growth and its frantic quest for new revenue sources raise questions. (First of two articles)    

Casting doubt on Facebook’s future is like going to Rome and questioning the existence of God. It’s not the right venue to do so. First, you can’t argue with figures, they’re overwhelming. Each institution features about the same number of devotees: 1.2 billion across the world. As for financials, Facebook’s annual report shows strong growth and wealth: $7.8bn in revenue for 2013 (+ 55% vs 2012), net income at $1.5bn and a $11bn cash pile. As for the Catholic Church, since it doesn’t not issue financial statements, we are left to guesstimates. Two years ago, a story in the Economist provided a back-of-the-envelope calculation putting the operating budget of the American Catholic Church alone to $170bn, the bulk being health and educational institutions, with $11bn for parishes where hardcore users are – which, for that part, is much better than Facebook.

Why, then, question Facebook’s future? Mainly for two reasons: ARPU evolution and diversification.

Let’s look at a few metrics. The most spectacular is the Monthly Active Users (MAUs) base: 1.23 billion people for the entire world. An interesting way to look at that number is to break down the global MAUs into geographic zones and combine those with ARPU numbers (calculated from the quarterly figures stated in the annual report). The results look like this:

316_facebook_arpu

Facebook’s long term challenge comes from these two factors: North American growth will be flat this year, and the rest of the world doesn’t bring much. The company is heavily and increasingly dependent on advertising: from 85% of its revenue in 2012 to 89% last year. Logically, its only option is to squeeze more money per user — which it steadily managed to do thus far. But, in the Facebook ecosystem, making more money from ads means milking more cash from users’ data. This, in turn, will lead to a greater invasion of privacy. It certainly doesn’t seem to bother Mark Zuckerberg, who is a transparency apologist.

Actually: Is he or was he?

As author David Kirkpatrick pointed out in his excellent opus, The Facebook Effect, Zuckerberg once said that “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity” (and judging by FB’s content policy, anyone can wonder if putting a breast-feeding pictures a sign of depravation?)

That was then.

Now, to address privacy concerns, Facebook is said to consider anonymous logins. It’s probably a good idea to back off a bit on the totalitarian pitch quoted above, but since the extensive data-mining performed by the network is made much more valuable by its use of real user names, anonymous logins are sure to impact the ARPU in the more mature markets. Along that line of thought, in Europe, Facebook’s ARPU is less than half of what it is in the US & Canada: $8.04 vs. $18.70. This significantly lower number stems from privacy concerns that are much more developed in European countries. There, the 20-25 segment seems especially worried about the consequences of spending too much time on Facebook.

A remaining lever is what I’ll call the Big Tobacco strategy: Do elsewhere what you can no longer do on your home playing field. Facebook might not be as cynical as Philip Morris (reborn as Altria as an attempt to erase the stain), but it is undoubtedly bound to try and replicate its successful collect-and-milk consumer data mechanism.

This might take a while to achieve.

First because of the ultra-slim ARPU generated by emerging markets users. You might object that the Indian market, as an example, currently enjoys growth along two dimensions: more users, with growing incomes. Granted. But the more sophisticated the India market becomes, the more inclined it will be to create a social network much more attuned to its own culture than a Menlo Park-based system manned by geeks in hoodies. Never underestimate the power, nor the determination of locals. And, let’s not dream too much about a huge Chinese version of Facebook.

Also, for Facebook, the cost of operating its service will make the ARPU question one of growing urgency. Again, based on the 2013 annual report, FB’s Cost of Revenue — mostly infrastructure –  amounts to $1.9bn. Divided by the 757 million DAUs, it costs $2.5 per year to serve a single daily user, that is connecting to his/er pals, hosting photos, videos, etc. If we aggregate all the cost structure components (networking, giant data centers and also R&D, sales & marketing, administrative), the cost of taking care of a single daily user rise to $6.69 per year and $4.12 for a monthly user. It’s still fine for an American and a European, much less so for an Asian who brings a yearly ARPU of $3.15, or an African who brings a mere $2.64 (in theory, the strain on the infrastructure is roughly the same, regardless of user location).

But some will argue Facebook is doing quite well on mobile. Out of its 1.23 billion monthly users, FB says 945 million reach its service via a mobile each month and 556 million do so on a daily basis. And, as stated in its 10-K, mobile is at the core of Facebook’s future:

There are more than 1.5 billion internet users on personal computers, and more than three billion mobile users worldwide according to GSMA Wireless Intelligence, and we aspire to someday connect all of these people. 

Fine, but once again, the ARPU weakens the ambition. While a mobile subscriber in the US and Europe brings respectively $69 and $38 each year (source: GSMA), according to the Cellular Operator Association of India, a Indian mobile subscriber yields only $1.72 per year. This makes advertising projections a tricky exercise.

As it expands, Facebook’s current model will inevitably yield less and less money per user. Hence, its frenetic quest for diversification and service extensions — a topic we’ll address in a future Monday Note.

As for the Church, it certainly is a safer bet than Facebook: The user base is less volatile, the interface blends much better into local cultures, barriers to competitive entries are stronger (and much older), and believers have long sacrificed their privacy to articles of faith.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

 

On Marc Andreessen’s optimistic view of news

 

A strongly-worded column by venture capitalist Marc Andreessen triggered an intense debate on the future of news. Andreessen might be right places, but his views can also be dangerously simplistic. 

For starters, it is always great to have an outsider’s view. Marc Andreessen’s witty, and fast-paced dithyramb on the future of news is undoubtedly welcome. But, as always, regardless of the depth and breath of the big picture he paints, the devil lies in the details. In no particular order, here are my thoughts on his manifesto.

As a European, I found his piece extraordinary US-centric or, slightly more broadly, Anglophone-centric.

Andreessen wrote :

[T]he market size is dramatically expanding—many more people consume news now vs. 10 or 20 years ago. Many more still will consume news in the next 10 to 20 years. Volume is being driven up, and that is a big, big deal.
Right now everyone is obsessed with slumping prices, but ultimately, the most important dynamic is No. 3 – increasing volume. Here’s why: Market size equals destiny. The big opportunity for the news industry in the next five to 10 years is to increase its market size 100x AND drop prices 10X. Become larger and much more important in the process.

By saying this, Andreessen makes two good faith mistakes.

First, he mixes up global reach and monetizable audience. Evidently, a growing number of people will enjoy access to news (maybe not all the 5 billion cellphone users he mentions), but the proportion of those able to generate a measurable ARPU is likely to be very small.

The Scalability that works for Google Maps or WhatsApp doesn’t work as well for the notion of relevant information, one that is more tightly connected to language, proximity and culture.

Second, he overestimates the addressable news market’s fragmentation. I live in France, a 66 million people country with a high standard of living and good fixed and mobile internet access. In spite of these factors, it remains a small market for the super-low-yield digital news business that brings few euros per year and per user (except for a minuscule subscriber base.) I remained stunned by the inability of good journalistic products, created by smart people, to find a sustainable business models after years of trying.

And the huge, globalized English speaking market does not warrant financial success. The Guardian is one such example. It operates one of the finest digital news system in the world but keeps bleeding money. The Guardian brings a mere $60m in digital ad revenue per year — to be compared to a kitten-rigged, listicles-saturated aggregator generating a multiple of this amount. Journalism has become almost impossible to monetize by itself (I’ll come back to that topic).

Andreessen also vastly underestimates the cost of good journalism when he writes:

[T]he total global expense budget of all investigative journalism is tiny —  in the neighborhood of tens of millions of dollars annually.”

Fact is, journalism is inherently expensive because it is by laborious and unpredictable: An investigation can take months, and yield nothing; or the journalistic outcome can be great, lifting the reputation of the media, but with zero impact on the revenue side (no identifiable growth in subscriptions or advertising). The same goes for ambitious coverage of people or events. No one has ever translated a Pulitzer Prize in hard dollars.

This is also the case for what Andreessen calls the “Baghdad Bureau problem”. It was said to cost $3m/year for the New York Times. In fact, on an annual basis, the Times spends about $200m for its news operations, including $70m for foreign coverage alone. The NYT is likely to stay afloat when it goes entirely digital (which might happen before the end of the decade), but one of the nastiest features of digital news is the unforgiving Winner Takes All mechanism.

As far as philanthropy is considered, I won’t spend too much time on the issue except to say this: Relying on philanthropy to cure malaria or to support ill-understood artists bears witness to an absence of sustainable economic system. (Until, perhaps, the artist dies; as for malaria, there is indeed a very long term benefit for society, but not for those who supply the treatment, hence the mandatory call to generosity.) Saying investigative or public-interest journalism could/should rely on philanthropy is the same as admitting it’s economically unsustainable. Luckily, American society has produced scores of philanthropists free from any agenda (political, ideological, religious) — such as the Sandler Foundation with ProPublica. That’s not the case in France — not to mention Russia and many other countries.

There are plenty of areas in which I completely support Marc Andreessen’s view. For example: A media company “should be run like a business“, i.e. seek the profitability that will warrant its independence (from every economic agent: shareholders, advertisers, political pressure, etc.) This brings us to the size and shape of a modern news factory (I use the term on purpose). We have to deal with an unpleasant reality: Good journalism is no longer sustainable as a standalone activity. But — and that’s the good news — it remains the best and indispensable core around which to develop multiple activities (see my recent column about The News Media Revenue Matrix).You can’t develop services, conferences, publishing, etc. around a depreciated journalistic asset. On the other hand, this asset has to be drastically streamlined: In many cases, less people, better-paid (simply for the ability to retain talent) and with sufficient means to do their job (don’t go for the press junkets because the travel budget has been slashed, you’ll lose on three counts: credibility of your brand, self-esteem of your team, quality of the reporting.)

Unfortunately, as Andreessen noted, there are plenty of hurdles to overcome. In fact, most existing news companies do not fathom the depth of the transformation required to survive and thrive. Nor do they understand the urgency to set this massive overhaul in motion. Such moves require strength, strong leadership, creativity, a fresh approach, unabated confidence, and a systemic vision — all of the above in short supply at legacy media. Note that when Marc Andreessen prides himself to be an investor in media ventures (for instance Business Insider– no conflict of interest), all are digital natives and bear none of the burdens of traditional media. His bullishness on news is selective, personal.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

News Media Revenue Matrix: The Bird’s Eye View

 

Publishers struggle with newer and more complex business models. Some appear stronger than others but, above all, a broad palette is a must. It is a means to capture emerging opportunities and to compensate for the drying up of older revenue sources.

Today, I submit the following revenue matrix for a modern, content-rich news outlet. As I see it, in the news business “modernity” mean this:

A proven ability to produce original content in abundance and under multiple forms: news reporting, investigation, analysis, data journalism, long form (for ebook publishing), enterprise-like journalism, live feeds; all of the above in the form of text, images, graphics and videos.

A cultural mindset to produce contents for the platform with the best fit: a news story for a newspaper, an interactive piece on the web, live coverage for mobile. The collective publishing mindset should no longer allow first- and second-class news products. Every piece of newsroom output must be designed as a contribution to a cascading revenue system in which each element empowers every other one.

– A newsroom equipped with the best tools money can buy or — even better — build. These include a powerful Content Management System (CMS) aimed at dispatching production to every platform. The CMS must be connected to a semantic analysis system that makes all pieces of information — from a feature story to the transcript of a video — compatible with the semantic web’s standardized grammar. In order to extract more value from a piece of content, the CMS must also connect to multiple databases. For example, the name of an obscure city must be able to generate a map – through the Geonames base; a Board Director must be tied to a high value database of business leaders such as The Official Board; the name of a company must lead to open-source corporations listings.

Mastering the semantic web is indissociable from acquiring information gathering capabilities such as aggregation and filtering (see a previous Monday Note: Building a business news aggrefilter ). Such feature is a prerequisite to building high-margin products as well as exploiting the social media echo chamber. After collecting contents through RSS feeds, the combination of semantic news analysis matched against the taxonomy of, say, Twitter, will yield a trove of information on what audiences like or dislike — not only for a news media but also for its competitors. It is a complex and expensive endeavor but, in the long run, it will be worth every penny.

– And more importantly, a global editorial thinking. Too often, newsroom management suffers form what l’ll call “mono-product bias”, focusing on what is seen as noble — namely print. At a very minimum, modern editorship must embrace a widespread digital strategy. But it also must envision a sustainable game plan for a complete lineup of ancillary products that also deserve editorial coherence and strength.

Having said that, let’s have a look at the following matrix. No rocket science here, I simply made a list of 14 products that many news outlets already operate. I then tried to assess the outlook for each revenue stream. (My original idea was to assign a estimated ARPU for each cell, but there are too many parameters to be taken into account).
Click to enlarge the table:

310 table revenue

Now, let’s focus on specific products and revenue streams.

Daily Print Edition. I’m very bearish on print. Granted, it still brings the most substantial chunk of revenue – but also most of the losses. And prospects are bleak: copy sales, subscriptions, even ad sales deteriorate fast. Some light can come from ads – when they are components of customized campaigns. Daily newspapers need to be vastly simplified in order to free up resources for the wide array of other revenue streams — especially digital. I’m a big supporter of Financial Times’ Lionel Barber “Memo on reshaping the newspaper for digital age“.

Weekend editions will do better than dailies for several reasons. First, their function — long formats, portfolios, reading habits — makes them better armed against the digital tsunami that devoured news. Second, they remain a great vector for pricey advertising: on some anglo-saxon markets, weekend editions accounts for half of the print ad revenue. The New York Times understood that well as its full digital access + weekend edition bundle is a hit among customers.

Advertising revenue stream. Let’s face it, traditional ads ormats, print or digital, are dying. The conjunction of programmatic buying and ad saturation/tracking/targeting will seal their fate for good. The best outlook seems to be for customized operations and brand contents (or combinations of the two). They can spread on every platforms, including on mobile where, so far, users massively reject ads. In addition, these customized operations carry high value (huge CPMs or hefty flat fees.)

Event & Conferences. The segment is crowded and success depends on a subtile combination of attendance fees vs sponsorship, but also of editorial content. A conference is indeed a full editorial vector that needs to be treated with the same care as any other publication, i.e, with a precise angle, great casting and first class moderation that favors intellectual density over speakers flogging cheap sales pitches. News media are well positioned to deploy an efficient promotion for a content-rich, sustainable, conference system.

Intelligence & Surveys. Attractive as they might sound, these products require a great deal of expertise to make a difference. Very few media can fulfill the promise and justify the high price that goes along with such offerings.

Training and MOOCs represent an interesting potential diversification for some business publications. They carry several advantages: by addressing a young readership, MOOCs can create an early attachment to the brand; the level of risk is low as long as the media company limits itself to being a distributor (quality MOOCs production is very expensive). For a business publication, such activities represent a great way to increase its penetration in the corporate world where the need for training is limitless.

Premium Subscriptions. Some large, diversified media companies are already considering complex subscription packages for a small number of high-yield clients. In addition to print and full digital access, such packages could include access to conferences & events, MOOCs, market intelligence, and other publications. Testing the concept is a low-risk proposition.

The Business to Business segment remains the province of specialized publications. But the potential is there for general-audience media: corporations are hungry for information. The era of the bulky corporate intranet that no one watches is gone; today, for their staff, companies want apps for mobile and tablets that will save time while being precisely targeted and well-designed. Not an easy market – but  a very solvent one.

Sketchy and questionable as it is, the above matrix also illustrates the complexity of designing and selling such a wide range of products to individuals or corporations. Only a small number of news organizations will have the staff, skills and resolve to address such a broad range of opportunities.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

@filloux

What to do with $250m in digital journalism? (II)

 

In a previous Monday Note, we looked at an ideal newsroom, profusely funded by Pierre Omidyar and managed by whistleblowing facilitator Glenn Greenwald, a structure that combines the agility of a tech startup with the highest of journalistic standards. Today, we look at the product and the business model.   

Profit or non-profit? Definitely for-profit! First, because the eBay founder’s track record (see this The New Inquiry article) shows a fierce appetite for profitable ventures. And second, because there no such thing as a free and independent media press without a strong business side: financial vulnerability is journalism’s worst enemy while profit breeds scalability. How to make money, then, with a narrow niche such as investigative journalism? Can Omidyar’s venture move beyond the cross-subsidy system that powered legacy media for decades? This weekend, in a FT.com interview, Henry Blodget justified the deluge of eye-grabbing headlines spread over Business Insider by saying “The dining and motoring sections pay for the Iraq bureau”. . .

For this, Omidyar can look at a wide set of choices: he could devise click-driven contents built on the proven high volume / cheap ads equation. Or he could opt for what I’ll call the Porsche Model, one in which the most visible activity (in this case sports car manufacturing) brings only a marginal contribution to the P&L when compared to its financial activities: in 2009, Porsche made $1bn in profit from car sales and almost $7bn betting on Volkswagen stock. More realistically, an endowment-like model sounds natural for a deep-pocketed investor like Pierre Omidyar. Most US universities are doing fine with that model: a large sum of money, the endowment, is invested and produces enough interest to run operations. One sure thing: If he really wants to go against big corporations and finance, to shield it from pressure, Omidyar should keep its business model disconnected from its editorial operation.

Investigative journalism is a field in which the subscription model can work. In France, the web site Mediapart offers a credible example. Known for, among many others feats, its investigation of the Budget Minister’s hidden Swiss bank account that led to its resignation, Mediapart maintains a newsroom of seasoned reporters working on hot topics. In five years, it collected close to 80,000 subscribers paying €9.90 per month; the web site intends to make €6m ($8m) in revenue and a profit of €0.4m ($0.5m) this year. Small amounts indeed, but not so bad for a market one fifth the size of the US. Scaling up to the huge English-speaking market, and assuming that it will go for a global scope rather than a US-centric coverage, the Omidyar-Greenwald venture could shoot for 500,000 to 800,000 subscribers within a few years, achieving $40m to $60m in yearly revenue.

On the product side, the motto should be Try Everything – on multiple segments and platforms.

Here is possible product-line structure:

298 graph

Mobile should primarily be a news updating vector. In a developing story, say hearings on the NSA scandal, readers want quotes, live blogging, snapshots – all easy to grab while on the go. Addiction must be the goal.

Newsletters deserve particular attention. They remain an excellent vector to distribute news and a powerful traffic driver. But this requires two conditions: First, they must be carefully designed, written by human beings and not by robots. Second, they must be run like an e-commerce operation: a combination of mass emailing and heavy personalization based on collected navigation data. For an editorial product, this means mapping out granular “semantic profiles” in order to serve users with tailored contents. If the Omidyar-Greenwald project lives up to its promise, it will deliver a regular stream of exclusive stuff. A cleverly engineered email system (both editorially and technically) stands good chances  to become a must-read.

User profiling must allow the creation of several verticals. Judging who will join the venture from the first bylines (see article in CNet), the coverage intends te be broad: from national security to White House politics, sports issues (a sure click-bait), civil liberties, military affairs, etc. This justifies working on audience segmentation, as not everyone will be interested in the same subject. The same goes for social web extensions: the more segmented, the better.

Web TV. If you want to go beyond kittens or Nascar crashes, providing TV contents on the web is more difficult that it appears. But “programs” available in Scandinavia show that, for developing stories, Web TV can be a great substitute for conventional TV as it allows simultaneous coverage of multiple events. Nordic viewers love that.

Fact-checking. Since the Omidyar-Greenwald project is built. t on trust and transparency, it should consider launching the equivalent of politifact.com, a fact-checking web site operated by the Tampa Bay Times, which landed a Pulitzer Prize in 2009. A vertical fact-checking site on national security, privacy and data protection issue would definitely be a hit.

Other languages. Going after the Chinese market could be hard to resist. According to Internet World Stats, it is by far the largest single market in the world with 538 million people connected to the web in 2012. For a media venture aimed at lifting the veil on corruption, China offers strong potential in itself. As far as evading censorship, it should be an appealing challenge for the squad of hackers hired by Omidyar-Greenwald.

A print version? Yes. It sounds weird, but I strongly believe that a well-designed weekly, large format (tabloid or Berliner), distributed on selected, affluent markets, would complete the product line. Print remains a vector of choice for specific, long-form readings, ambitious news scenographies with high impact photographs, for an in-depth profile or a public interest story.

Global Thinking. Its potential for worldwide reach is one of this venture’s most interesting factors. It will be of limited interest if it doesn’t embrace a global approach to public interest journalism in large democracies but also in countries that are deprived of a free press (a long list). Creating a high standard, worldwide affiliation system to promote investigative journalism everywhere, regardless of the economic and political constraints, should definitely be on the founders’ roadmap.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Amazon and Apple Business Models

 

Amazon “loses” money, Apple makes tons if it. And yet, Wall Street prefers Jeff Bezos’s losses to Tim Cook’s. A look at the two very different cash machines will help dispel the false paradox.

The words above were spoken by an old friend and Amazon veteran, as three French émigrés talked shop at a Palo Alto watering hole. The riposte would fit as the epigraph for The Amazon Money Pump For Dummies, an explanation of Amazon’s ever-ascending stock price while the company keeps “losing money”.

(I don’t like the term Business Model, and Bizmodel even less so. I prefer Money Pump with its lively evocations: attach the hose, adjust the valves, prime the mechanism, and then watch the flow of money from the customer’s pocket to the investor’s purse).

Last quarter, Amazon’s revenue grew by 24% year-on-year, and lost about 1% of its net sales of $17B. This strong but profitless revenue growth follows an established pattern:

AMZN No Profit Growth copy
Despite the company’s flat-lined profits, Wall Street loves Amazon and keeps sending its shares to new heights. Since its 1997 IP0, AMZN has gone from $23 to $369/share:

298 share 21x
How come?

[Professional accountants: Avert your eyes; the following simplification could hurt.

Profit isn't cash, it's merely an increase in the value of your assets. Such increase can be illiquid. Profit is an accountant's opinion. Cash is a fact.]

Amazon uses its e-commerce genius to prime the money pump. The company seduces customers through low prices, prompt delivery, an ever-expanding array of services and products, and exemplary customer attention. What keeps the pump going is the lag between the moment they ding my credit card and the time that they pay Samsung for the Galaxy Note tablet I ordered. Last quarter, Amazon’s daily revenue was about $200M ($17B divided by 90 days). If it waits just 24 hours to pay its suppliers, the company has $200M to play with. If it delays payment for a month, that’s $6B it can use to invest in developing the business. Delay an entire quarter…the numbers become dizzying.

But, you’ll say, there’s nothing profoundly original there. All businesses play this game, retail chains depend on it. Definitely — but what sets Amazon apart is what it does with that flow of free cash. The company is relentless in building the best services and logistics machine on Earth. Just this week, we read that Amazon has hired the US Post Office to deliver Amazon packages (only) on Sundays.

Amazon uses cash to build a better Amazon that keeps bringing in more cash.

Why do suppliers “loan” Amazon such enormous amounts of cash? Why do they let the company grow on their backs? Because, just like Wall Street, they trust that the company will keep growing and give them ever more business. Amazon might be a hard taskmaster, but it can be trusted to pay its bills (eventually) — the same cannot be said of some other retail organizations.

Amazon doesn’t care that it doesn’t make a “profit” on the sale of a box of Uni-Ball pens that it ships for free. Rather, it focuses on pumping enormous amounts of cash into the virtuous spiral of an ever-expanding business. Wall Street rewards the company with an equally expanding market cap.

How long can Amazon’s expansion last? Will the tree grow to the sky? If we consider a single line of business — books, for example — saturation will inevitably set in. But one of the many facets of Bezos’ genius is that he’s always been able to find new territories. Amazon Web Services is one area where the company is now larger than all of its competitors combined, and shows no sign of slowing down or of approaching saturation.

In the end, we mustn’t be fooled by the simplicity of Amazon’s money pump. Bezos’ genius is in the implementation, in the details. Like a chef who’s not afraid to disclose his recipes, Bezos writes to his shareholders every year — his missives are all here — And he always appends his first 1997 letter, thus reminding everyone that he’s not about to lose the plot.

The other friend in this conversation, an old Apple hand, happily nodded along as our ex-Amazon compatriot told stories from his years in the Seattle trenches. When asked about the Apple money pump and why Wall Street didn’t seem to respect Apple’s huge profits, he started with an epigraph of his own:

The simplest encapsulation of Apple’s business model is the iPod.

To paraphrase: The iPod is the movie star, it brings the audience flocking to the theatre; iTunes is the supporting cast.

iTunes was initially perceived as a money-losing operation, but without it the iPod would have been a good-looking but not terribly useful piece of hardware. iTunes propelled iPod volumes and margin by providing an ecosystem that comprised two innovations: “music by the slice” (vs. albums,) and a truly new micro-payment system (99 cents charged to a credit card).

That model is what powers the Apple money pump today. The company’s personal computers — smartphones, tablets, and laptops/desktops — are the movie stars. Everything else exists to make these lead products more useful and pleasant. Operating systems, applications, stores, Apple TV, the putative iWatch…they’re all part of the supporting cast.

Our Apple friend offered another thought: The iPod marked the beginning of the Post-PC era. By 2006 — a year before the introduction of the iPhone — iPod sales had exceeded Mac revenue.

Speaking of cash, Apple doesn’t need to play Amazon’s timing games. Product margins range from 20-25% for desktops and laptops (compared to HP’s 3-5%), to 65% or more for iPhones. With cash reserves reaching $147B at the end of September 2013, Apple has had to buy shares back and pay dividends to bleed off the excess.

Far from needing a “loan” from its suppliers, Apple heads in exactly the opposite direction. On page 37 of the company’s 2013 10-K (annual) filing, you’ll find a note referring to “third-party manufacturing commitments and component purchase commitments of $18.6 billion“. This is a serious cash outlay, an advance to suppliers to secure components and manufacturing capacity that works out to $50 for every person in the US…

Wall Street’s cautious regard for Apple seems ill-advised given Apple’s ability to generate cash in embarrassing amounts. As the graph below shows, after following a trajectory superficially similar to Amazon’s, Apple apparently “fell from grace” in 2012:

298 fall from grace
I can think of two explanations, the first one local, the other global.

During Fiscal 2012, ending in September of that year, Apple’s Gross Margins reached an unprecedented high of 43.9%. By all standards, this was extremely unusual for a hardware company and, as it turned out, it was unsustainable. In 2013, Apple Gross Margin dropped by more than 6 percentage points (630 basis points in McKinsey-speak), an enormous amount. Wall Street felt the feast was over.

Also, Fiscal 2013 was seen as a drought year. There were no substantial new products beyond the iPhone 5 and the iPad mini announced in September and October 2012, and there was trouble getting the new iMacs into customers’ hands during the Holiday season.

More globally important is the feeling that Apple has become a “hits” business. iPhones now represent 53% of Apple’s revenue, and much more (70%?) of its profits. They sell well, everything looks rosy…until the next season, or the next round of competitive announcements.

This is what makes Wall Street nervous: To some, Apple now looks like a movie studio that’s too dependent on the popularity of its small stable of stars.

We hear that history will repeat itself, that the iPhone/iPad will lose the battle to Android, just as the Mac “lost” to Windows in the last century.

Our ex-Apple friend prefers an automotive analogy. Audi, Tim Cook’s preferred brand, owns a small portion of the luxury car market (about 7.5%), but it constantly posts increasing profits — and shows no sign of slacking off. Similarly, today’s $21B Mac business holds a mere 10% of the PC market, but Apple “uses” that small share to command 45% of market profits. The formula is no secret but, as with Amazon’s logistics and service, the payoff is in the implementation, how the chef combines the ingredients. It’s the “mere matter of implementation” that eluded Steve Ballmer’s comprehension when he called the MacBook an Intel laptop with an Apple logo slapped on it. Why wouldn’t the Mac recipe also work for smartphones and tablets?

JLG@mondaynote.com