apple

Fantasy Apple TV

On August 15th, The Wall Street Journal published yet another story about Apple’s imminent invasion of the TV business. According to people who are “familiar with the matter”, the Cupertino company is…

in talks with some of the biggest U.S. cable operators about letting consumers use an Apple device as a set-top box for live television and other content…

The article has triggered an explosion of comments, speculation, purported leaks, and ”channel checks”. After the enormous success of the iPhone and the iPad, is TV going to be Apple’s Next Big Thing?

(If you Google “Apple iTV”, you get about 32M hits; “Apple TV” yields 700M. Curiously, Microsoft’s Bing gives you only 11M and 250M. I don’t know what to make of the disparity between the Google and Bing numbers, but a cursory look shows more useful results on Bing. As we know, this now depends on who’s asking and when.)

The topic excites writers and readers alike for good reason: We’re all frustrated with TV as it is, and we have a vague, hopeful sense that a disruptor such as Apple (or Google) could break through the obstacles that have been constructed by operators (cable/satellite) and content owners (studios).

Wouldn’t it be nice to get What we want, When we want it, Where we want it, on the device we like without having to deal with brain-dead set-top box program guides and channel bundle rip-offs?

The precedent has been set: CBS Interactive offers the excellent $4.99 60 Minutes iPad app. NBC, ABC, and other networks have an array of separate apps for news, sports, and entertainment. But this is sliced and diced content, carefully picked and edited, not the real What When Where thing.

For example, where can I get the Olympics opening ceremony? I missed it, I hear it was TV Worth Watching. NBC’s site? No. I even checked the NBC Olympics Live Extra app… no joy. YouTube has a few snippets here and there, but I want the whole thing, beginning to end, the excess and the embarrassment. I’ll sit through an ad or two, if need be, or, better yet, offer me a one-click payment so I can skip the ads.

Why is this so difficult?

First, there’s the fear factor: Having seen how Steve Jobs dominated the music distribution industry, TV studios and operators aren’t eager to let Apple hop into the driver’s seat. The major players foresee a significant drop in ARPU (Average Revenue Per User) if viewers are allowed to unbundle channels, if we can go ”à la carte”, if we can point, click, and pay our way into the TV universe. The impression that Apple “destroyed” the music industry conveniently omits what pirates were doing when iTunes came onto the scene and provided a clean, well-lighted distribution channel, but the fear remains.

Then there’s the complexity: Today’s TV revenue stream, the money sucked out of our pockets, divides into a maze of rivulets that flow to operators, distributors, content owners, and producers. Music is relatively simple compared to TV…but even so,  remember how long it took for the Beatles to become available on iTunes? Nine years.

And is it even worth it to Apple? Although Apple TV sales keep growing — +170% year-to-year for the last quarter — the numbers are still relatively small, only 4 million units for FY 2012 so far. At $100 apiece, such volume doesn’t “move the needle”, it’s immaterial when compared to iPhone and iPad revenue and profit.

Still, are these persistent Apple TV rumors totally unfounded?

The answer lies in Apple’s one and only business model: hardware revenue.

Everything else Apple does — software, iTunes, Genius Bars — only exists to push up hardware sales and profits.

With this in mind, today’s Apple TV does more than just deliver Netflix and iTunes movies: It’s a neat part of the ecosystem, it makes Macs (now with AirPlay), iPhones, and iPads more valuable. Your iPhone vacation pictures will show quite nicely on the family TV. Go to a conference room equipped with Apple TV and make your Keynote presentation from your iPhone, iPad, or Mac, no cable required. (PowerPoint doesn’t run on iPads, but a PDF output works just as well.) With the latest 10.8 rev (Mountain Lion) of OS X, all content available on the Web can now appear on your TV.

There’s another, longer term strategy at work: At some point, the growing Apple TV installed base will gain enough mass to become a viable distribution channel. (The same would apply to a successful Google TV effort.) When this happens, someone will crack. ESPN will offer its fare as apps — some free with ads, some paid-for without intrusions — and the others will follow.

It’s a nice theory, it plays into Apple’s ability to deploy the iOS platform more fully on Apple TV, to offer a UI miles ahead of today’s set-top boxes. But in order to matter, the product line will eventually have to reach revenue in the $100B range. What sort of numbers can an Apple TV bring in?

Let’s start with a modest $100/month cable bill. What portion does Apple want? We see the 30% number bandied around, I’m skeptical such a percentage would fly but let’s go with that for the order of magnintude experiment. If we look into a distant future, a time when Apple has 100 million TV subscribers (today, in the US, we have about 50M cable and 35M satellite TV customers), that’s $3B/month, about $40B per year in recurring revenue. If we assume that the new-fangled Apple TV hardware fetches $300 per box, we get an additional yield of $30B — stretched over the number of years needed to reach 100M customers.

This leaves us with difficult questions: How fast can Apple get to 100 million Apple TV-equipped homes? Will operators and content owners/distributors “give” Apple a $30 ARPU? How often will customers be willing to upgrade their TVs (certainly not as often as the iPhone/iPad)? Can Apple broaden its business model to include content and services?

I hope so, I’d love to throw away my ugly set-top box, but I have trouble seeing a path to that happy event. Apple might just continue to improve the black puck, open it to iOS app developers and, in Tim Cook’s words, see where it leads the company.

As for  a full-fledged 50″ TV set…I don’t think so. The computer inside would be obsolete well before the display goes dim. This seems to favor a separate Apple TV box.

Who knows, all this agitation might scare TV providers into providing us with better hardware and services…

(See previous Monday Notes on the subject here, here, here, and here.)

Summer Fun: The HR-Less Performance Review

The idea for today’s off-topic note came to me when I read “Microsoft’s Lost Decade“, an aptly titled Vanity Fair story. In the piece, Kurt Eichenwald tracks Microsoft’s decline as he revisits a decade of technical missteps and bad business decisions. Predictably, the piece has generated strong retorts from Microsoft’s Ministry of Truth and from Ballmer himself (“It’s not been a lost decade for me!” he barked from the tumbrel).

But I don’t come to bury Caesar — not, yet, I’ll wait until actual numbers for Windows 8 and the Surface tablets emerge. Instead, let’s consider the centerpiece of Eichenwald’s article, his depiction of the cultural degeneracy and intramural paranoia that comes of a badly implemented performance review system.

Performance assessments are, of course, an important aspect of a healthy company. In order to maintain fighting weight, an organization must honestly assay its employees’ contributions and cull the dead wood. This is tournament play, after all, and the coach must “release” players who can’t help get the team to the finals.

But Microsoft’s implementation — “stack ranking”, a bell curve that pits employees and groups against one another like rats in a cage — plunged the company into internecine fights, horse trading, and backstabbing.

…every unit was forced to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, then good performers, then average, then below average, then poor…For that reason, executives said, a lot of Microsoft superstars did everything they could to avoid working alongside other top-notch developers, out of fear that they would be hurt in the rankings.

Employees quickly realized that it was more important to focus on organization politics than actual performance:

Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees.

This brought back bad memories of my corpocrat days working for a noted Valley company. When I landed here in 1985, I was dismayed by the pervasive presence of Human Resources, an éminence grise that cast a shadow across the entire organization. Humor being the courtesy of despair, engineers referred to HR as the KGB or, for a more literary reference, the Bene Gesserit, monikers that knowingly imputed an efficiency to a department that offered anything but. Granted, there was no bell curve grading, no obligation to sacrifice the bottom 5%, but the politics were stifling nonetheless, the review process a painful charade.

In memory of those shenanigans, I’ve come up with a possible antidote to manipulative reviews, an attempt to deal honestly and pleasantly with the imperfections of life at work. (Someday I’ll write a Note about an equally important task: How to let go of people with decency — and without lawyers.)

A review must start with three key ingredients, in this order:

  • First: Because your performance meets/exceeds requirements, we’ll renew our vows, our work relationship will continue.
  • Second: Here are your new numbers: salary, bonus, stock.
  • Third: We’re sufficiently happy with your performance as it stands today, so feel free to disregard the observations and suggestions for improvement I’m about to make. Now let’s talk…

This might sound a little too “different” (that’s Californian for “batty”), but there’s a serious purpose, here. We’ve all been reviewed, we all know the anxiety — and sometimes the resentment — that precedes the event. Mealy-mouthed comments about team-spirit, loyalty, how the company cares for its people and other insufferable HR pablum only makes things worse. You tune out, you can only hear the noises in your own head: Am I being led to the exit? Am I being shafted out of a raise/bonus/stock? Am I supposed to think that loyalty is its own — and only — reward?

To be heard, the reviewer must silence these questions. Hence the preamble: Your job is safe; here are the $$; we like what you do enough that you can safely continue to behave in the manner we have come to expect, no need to course-correct.

There follows a pause to let the news sink in. Anxiety quelled, the reviewee is now prepared — and willing — to listen.

On to the observations and suggestions. It’s probably a good idea to start with the minus side of the ledger — this isn’t much different from a sales pitch: Get the product’s negatives out of the way first. Stick to specific comments about goals missed, undesirable habits, and the like. “When you arrive 20 minutes late at our staff meetings, you’re being disrespectful to your colleagues, including me.” Defensive reactions to the negative part of a review are unavoidable, so you sing the refrain: The objectionable behavior, while imperfect, doesn’t jeopardize your job.

(As an aside, and seriously: Objecting to a behavior that you insist will be tolerated because of the overall goodness of the relationship…this approach works wonders outside of work. It’s a lot more constructive than the comminatory “You must stop doing this”, which invites the sarcastic and unhelpful response: “And if I don’t? What? You’ll divorce me?”)

The review can now proceed to the positive, to praising the individual’s performance and giving thanks. Saccharine is to be avoided, examples are a must, and exaggeration is only welcome in moderate doses.

Finally, ask for feedback… but don’t kid yourself: Hierarchy trumps honesty, so you may have to ask twice. Explain that you understand the challenge in giving feedback to the reviewer. You might get some useful tidbits, especially if they sting a bit.

Back in the real world, this simple, direct approach might not fit a large organization where you need to protect the rest of the team from the demoralization of a metastasized employee. The habitual backstabber, the knee-jerk naysayer, the self-appointed “Fellow” must be excised before too much harm is done. It’s a difficult task that requires a degree of human judgment and courage that’s not afforded by a mechanical ranking system.

Next week, we might return to topics such as Apple’s uneasy relationship with file systems, Android tablets and phablets, or some such tech disquisition.

Apple: Three Intriguing Numbers

No Monday Note last week: I was in The Country of Sin, enjoying pleasures such as TGV trips across a landscape of old villages, Romanesque churches, Rhône vineyards — and a couple of nuclear power plants. All this without our friendly TSA.

Back in the Valley, Apple just released their latest quarterly numbers. They weren’t as good as expected, a fact that launched a broadside of comments ranging from shameless pageview whoring (I’m looking at you, Henry) to calm but worried (see Richard Gaywood’s analysis).

As I’ll attempt to explain below, Apple’s latest quarterly performance is unusual. But, stepping back a bit, the company’s numbers are nonetheless phenomenal.

Net sales, growing 23%, are more than three times larger than Amazon’s — and Apple’s net income is more than 1,000 times larger, $8.8B vs. a tiny $7M for the Seattle giant, whose shares went up after disclosing its earnings release anyway.

Turning to Google, Apple sales of $35B are more than three times Google’s $11.3B (including Motorola, for the first time), with net income numbers in a similar ratio at $8.8B and $2.8B respectively.

Ending comparisons with Microsoft, its revenue grew 4% to $18B, about half of Apple’s and, for the first time, the company posted a net loss of $492M, due to the huge $6.2B aQuantive write off, a one time event. Excluding that number, Microsoft net income would have been about $5.5B, two thirds of Apple’s. iPhone revenue at $16B for the quarter, approaches Microsoft’s number for the entire company, iPad, at $9B is about half.

For in-depth coverage of Apple’s Q3 FY 2012, you can turn to Philip Ellmer-DeWitt’s Apple 2.0 or Horace Dediu’s Asymco — possibly the best source of fine-grained industry analysis. I can also recommend Daring Fireball for John Gruber’s lapidary comments and carefully chosen links, and Brian Hall’s Smartphone Wars — vigorous commentary and insights, occasionally couched in NSFW language. Of course, you can always wade through Apple’s 10-Q SEC filing, if you have the time and inclination. Of particular interest is Section 2 MD&A, Management Discussion and Analysis, starting on page 21.

Out of this torrent of information and argument, I suggest we look at three numbers.

First, the 3% “Miss”, Wall Street’s term for failing to hit the revenue bull’s eye. I’m not referring to the guessing games played by Wall Street analysts, both the pros and the so-called amateurs. In the past, the amateurs have done a consistently better job of forecasting revenue, gross margin, profit, unit volumes, but this time, the pros won. Although almost everyone substantially overestimated Apple’s numbers, the pros weren’t nearly as optimistic as the amateurs.”

Instead of measuring Apple’s performance against the predictions of the traders and observers, we can recall what the company itself told us to expect. About a month into each quarter, management provides an official but non-committal estimate of the quarter’s revenue. This guidance is a delicate dance: You want to be cautious, you want to sandbag a little, but not so much that your numbers aren’t taken seriously. Unavoidably, a lot of second-guessing ensues.

Apple has consistently beaten its own guidance, by 19% on average over the past three years, and as much as 35% in Q1 2010. But in this past quarter, Apple “achieved” a historic low: Actual revenue came in at only 3% above the guidance number. Richard Gaywood provides a helpful graphic in his TUAW piece:

Apple management offered explanations during the conference call following the earnings release: The economy in Europe isn’t doing so well, “rumors” about the iPhone 5 have slowed sales of iPhone 4s… These might very well be the causes of the lackluster performance, but one has to wonder: Weren’t these issues known two months ago when the guidance number was announced? Apple is praised for its superbly managed supply chain, its global distribution network, its attention to detail. How is it possible that it didn’t see that the European economy was already cooling? How could management not have heard the steady murmur about an upcoming iPhone?

Put another way: What did you know and when did you know it? And, if you didn’t know, why didn’t you?

There is a possible alternative explanation: Samsung is making more substantial inroads than expected, as their impressive quarterly numbers just released would attest: 50.5M smartphones shipped, almost twice as many as Apple’s 26M.

Sharp-eyed readers may protest the comparison: Samsung reports the number of devices “shipped” while Apple reports units “sold”. But even if we allow for unsold inventory, Samsung’s performance is impressive.  (And, as circumstantial evidence, I noticed an unusually heavy amount of advertising for the Galaxy S III during my recent overseas trip.)

Samsung’s strong showing will almost certainly continue — so how will Apple react? A new product? Price moves? Both? In the conference call, Tim Cook assured his audience that Apple won’t create a “price umbrella” for competitors, that it won’t insist on premium price tags and thus leave small-margin money on the table.

Which leads us to the second number: Gross Margin guidance for the current quarter, ending September 30th, is 38.5%, down from 42.8% for the quarter that just ended. In consultant-speak, that’s an evaporation of 430 basis points (hundredths of percent) in just one quarter — and we’re already one month into it with no visible change in the product lineup other than the full availability of newer MacBooks (Air, Pro, Retina), and no evidence of heavy-handed discounting.

During the conference call, a Morgan Stanley analyst noted that Apple hadn’t shown Gross Margin numbers below 40% for the past two years. Would Apple care to comment?

We expect most of this decline to be primarily driven by a fall transition and to a much lesser extent, the impact of the stronger U.S. dollar.

The entire Gross Margin drop of about $34B of sales (the latest guidance) amounts to $1.5B, a sum that will shift in less than two months, and probably less than one as any momentous announcement is unlikely before Labor Day (the first Monday of September for our overseas readers). This could portend a strong price move in the “fall transition”. To put the $1.5B shift in perspective, imagine Apple dropping its “usual” Gross Margin by $100 per device (new or existing); this means 15M lower-margins devices in the three weeks of September after Labor Day. Or perhaps Apple’s CFO is sandbagging the guidance once again.

The third curious number is the most perplexing: While the entire company grew by 23% compared to the same quarter last year, Apple Store revenue grew by only 17% — and this in spite of adding 47 stores over the year, for a total of 372. Why would Apple’s much vaunted retail channel grow more slowly than the company? The weak Euro economy can’t be the explanation, there are relatively less Apple Stores there. The same can be said for “rumors” of newer devices, they impact all channels and not just company stores.

We’ll see if this last quarter was simply a manifestation of a natural “granularity” of its business (as opposed to the unnatural smoothing of quarter after quarter numbers favored by Wall Street), or if the company is entering a new chapter of the smartphone wars and, if this is the case, how it will change tactics.

JLG@mondaynote.com

iPad Mini: Wishful Thinking?

Or another killer product? Or, on the pessimistic side, a loser defensive move showing Apple’s fear of competitors such as Amazon, with its Kindle Fire, and Google’s 7″ Nexus tablet?

Recent leaks from purported sources inside Apple’s traditional suppliers have ignited a new frenzy of speculation. And not just from the usual blogging suspects — often better informed and more insightful than the official kommentariat. BusinessWeek and the Wall Street Journal both stuck their august necks out: The so-called iPad Mini will be launched this coming September.

On this matter, my own biases are on the record.

In an August 2009 Note titled “Apple’s Jesus Tablet: What For?“, I went as far as measuring the pocket on men’s pockets. As a result, I posited a 10″ (diagonal) tablet might not provide the same desirable ubiquity as a 7″ one that men could carry in a coat or jacket pocket, and women in a purse.
(Apple once came to a similar conclusion: the original Newton project started by Steve Sakoman in 1987 was a letter-size tablet. After he and I left, the screen size was cut in half and the actual Newton came out as a pocketable product.)
Five months later, on January 27th, 2010, Steve Jobs stood up and changed the personal computing world for the third time with the 9.7″ (diagonal screen size) iPad. The take-no-prisoners price ($499 for the entry model) was a big surprise. Another one, much less obvious, was Dear Leader’s unusually tentative positioning statement: ‘We’ll see how the iPad finds its place between the iPhone and a MacBook’. (I’m paraphrasing a bit but the tone was there.)
The iPad surprised many, Apple included and, at the beginning, was often misunderstood. I recall my initial disappointment at not being able to perform the same tasks as on my laptop. A huge number of normal humans of all ages thought differently. As we know now, the iPad grew even faster than the iPhone. Notwithstanding Microsoft’s clinging to its ossified PC-centric rhetoric, this turned out to be the true beginning of the Post-PC era.

This excited competitors around the world: You’ll find here a list of 76 tablets announced at CES. By the end of 2011, few had accomplished anything. One exception was Amazon’s Kindle Fire, its Xmas season numbers were rumored to reach more than 4M units, even 6M by some rumored estimates. This rekindled, sorry, rumors of a smaller iPad.
In October 2010, Jobs famously dismissed the idea: “7-inch tablets should come with sandpaper so users can file down their fingers.” None of the journalists present at the time had the presence of mind to ask him about the iPhone screen…
Tim Cook, Steve’s disciple put it well at the D10 conference last June when he affectionately (and accurately) called Jobs a great flip-flopper, citing examples of products features his then boss ended up endorsing after repeatedly nixing them.
In an April 2012 Monday Note, I discussed the possible end of Apple’s One Size Fits All for  iPhones and, in particular, iPads. There, I linked to an A. T. Faust III post lucidly explaining how the original 1024 x 768 resolution could easily scale down to a 7.85″ tablet and achieve a nice 163 ppi (pixels per inch) resolution, the same as pre-Retina iPhones. This leads one to believe there is abundant (and inexpensive) manufacturing capacity for such pre-Retina displays.

A few questions.

First, developers. As we saw with iOS apps for iPhone and iPad, size matters, apps don’t scale. That hasn’t dampened the enthusiasm of developers for investing in app versions that take advantage of each device unique characteristics, as opposed to committing the cardinal sin of “It’s like the other one, only smaller/bigger”.
So, if developers believe a 7″ iPad would sell in large numbers, they’ll happily fire up Xcode, adapt their existing app, or write a new one. As for the belief in large unit volume for a 7″ device, the initial reception accorded to Google’s Nexus tablet shows there is potentially a lot of life in a smaller iPad.

(I ordered a Nexus tablet and will dutifully report. Last April, I bought a Samsung Note phablet and promised a report. Here it is: I’ll sell you mine for $50. A respectable product, I could definitely live with it. But, IMO, too big for a phone, too small for a tablet.)

Second, Apple was on offense. Now, competition succeeded in putting it on the defensive. While initial Kindle Fire sales were rumored to be huge, the same “sources”, checking on display supplier suppliers, now claim sales of Amazon’s tablet dropped precipitously after the Holidays. Amazon keeps mum, but is also rumored to prepare a slew of not one but several tablets for this year’s Xmas quarter.
As for the Nexus tablet, it isn’t shipping yet.
Instead of a defensive move, I think a 7″ iPad might be another take-no-prisoners move:

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.

If this cannibalizes 10″ iPad sales, no problem, better do it yourself than let Google, Amazon or Samsung do it.

Lastly, the price/cost question. As you’ll see on this video, Todd Schoenberger, a Wall Street haruspex visibly off his meds, contends an iPad Mini is a terrible move for Apple, it would be a break with its single product version focus. Like, for the example, the one and only Macintosh, the one and only iPod. Also, he continues, an iPad Mini wouldn’t allow Apple achieve the 37% gross margin it gets from the bigger sibling.
No. If we’re to believe iSuppli, a saner authority on cost matters, the latest 32 GB 4G iPad carries a Bill Of Materials of about $364, for a retail price of $729. Even with a bit of manufacturing overhead, we’re far from 37% today. And, tomorrow, a smaller iPad, with a smaller display, a smaller battery, a correspondingly smaller processor would nicely scale down in cost from the “new” iPad and its expensive display/battery/processor combo.
To where? I won’t speculate, but Apple has shown an ability to be very cost competitive when using previous generation parts and processes. See today’s iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4 prices for an example.

I have no inside knowledge and quite a few inclinations: I’d love a pocketable iPad as much as I like small computers such as the defunct Toshiba Libretto and the lively 11″ MacBook Air.

If Apple comes up with a smaller iPad later this year, I think it’ll be a killer product.

–JLG@mondaynote.com

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

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.]

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.

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