Apple needs a hit

On today’s earnings call, Apple CEO Tim Cook spent an unusual amount of time blaming macroeconomic conditions for the company’s middling performance.

He blamed economic downturns in major markets:

Major markets including Brazil, Russia, Japan, Canada, southeast Asia, Australia, Turkey, and the Eurozone have been impacted by slowing economic growth, falling commodity prices, and weakening prices.

He blamed weakening currencies in a lot of countries, which makes Apple products more expensive there:

Since the end of fiscal 2014, for instance, the Euro and British Pound are down double-digits, and major currencies such as the Canadian Dollar, Australian Dollar, Mexican Peso, and Turkish Lira have declined 20 per cent or more. The Brazillian Real is down more than 40 per cent, and the Russian Ruble has declined more than 50 per cent. Two-thirds of Apple’s revenue is now generated outside the United States, so foreign currency fluctuations have a very meaningful impact on our results.

He even alluded to falling oil prices in the answer to a question about whether Apple would keep investing in China and other markets at the same pace:

And finally, even in the markets where today, grantedly, it looks fairly bleak — from Russia and Brazil and some of the other economies that are very much tied to oil based economies — we do believe that this too shall pass, and that these countries will be great places, and we want to serve customers in there.

(Full transcript here.)

But there’s a more obvious problem, too.

Apple hasn’t had a new hit product since the iPad in 2010.

And that product, which was supposed to be the third leg of the stool for Apple’s long-term growth — alongside the Mac and the iPhone — has been shrinking like crazy. Unit sales have dropped every single quarter for the last two years. Apple released the iPad Pro in November of 2015, and it didn’t stop the slide at all.

The decline of the iPad could be overlooked as long as the iPhone juggernaut kept churning.

But Apple may finally be topping out there, too:

On the call, Cook acknowledged what many analysts had already predicted, that iPhone sales “will decline” in the March quarter.

Maybe the iPhone 7 will be a monster hit and rescue Apple again, like the iPhone 6 did the last time Apple was in this kind of doldrums.

But I’m sceptical. The iPhone 6 met pent-up customer demand for a phone with a larger screen. Apple looked at Samsung’s success selling phones with larger screens, wisely cast aside Steve Jobs’ former ruling that the iPhone’s four-inch screen was perfect, and boom — sales took off.

Where’s the unmet demand this time? What are people buying from competitors that Apple doesn’t offer?

This is the maturity of the smartphone market. When everybody who can afford a smartphone has one, nobody — not even Apple — will be able to speed up the natural replacement cycle of every two or three years.

By the way, Mac sales also went negative for the first time since mid-2013.

So what’s next?

The Apple Watch is not the hit Apple needed. Apple didn’t release sales figures for it, except to say that December was its best quarter ever, but the anecdotal evidence is pretty overwhelming. I live and work in the geekiest most gadget-obsessed city in the United States, and I never see anybody wearing an Apple Watch.

It may take off eventually as a link between a bunch of connected devices — the iPod was a slow-grower at first, too — but it’s going to take a while. Until Apple releases sales figures, we won’t know.

Same thing with Apple TV. Nice product, slowly growing sales every quarter, but not particularly material to earnings — it’s lumped with the Watch and Beats headphones in the “Other” category, which delivered $4.3 billion in revenue out of Apple’s $75.9 billion in total.

So what’s the next big thing? Tim Cook did hint that cloud services might be the next big area of investment for Apple:

In terms of our future plans, I wouldn’t want to comment about any particular thing, but obviously with breaking this out, we wouldn’t be breaking it out if it wasn’t an area that was very important to us in the future.

He could be alluding to Apple’s long-rumoured streaming TV service, which could offer smaller bundles of TV channels that people really want for a cheaper price than cable TV. But Apple needs to finish signing the necessary content deals, or maybe buy a big media company like Time Warner. The future of TV may be coming, and Apple may deliver it, but it’s not here yet.

Plus, Apple’s record with services is bad. Apple Maps still isn’t as good as Google Maps. Siri works right about half the time. iCloud is confoundingly frustrating — I just had a problem updating my iPhone software because my iCloud storage was full to capacity and they wanted me to buy more. I wasn’t even aware I’d turned it on. Apple Music is a buggy mess.

So I’m not convinced Apple has the chops to deliver a world-changing online service. It never has. Great hardware, occasionally brilliant software, an unparalleled retail experience. But online services? Not so much.

Don’t get me wrong: Apple is not in trouble. It just posted the biggest quarterly profit of any company in history. It has more than 1 billion devices being actively used right now. It will continue to iterate on its existing hit products, particularly the iPhone, to keep people upgrading every two or three releases.

But for a company to keep growing at the rate Apple grew during the last decade, it can’t just keep reworking the same old classics. It has to deliver new hits, too.


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