The recent long-anticipated rise of Apple stock to the top of all publicly traded company valuations, during the most volatile week in Wall Street history, prompts the question: What can we learn from the tech company turned stellar retailer during this economic malaise?
The answer is plenty, and that’s especially worthy of reflection in light of this week’s unsettling, but not unexpected resignation of Apple’s intrepid leader.
You don’t have to like the demanding, aloof style of Steve Jobs, who abruptly resigned as CEO late Aug. 24 due to failing health, but continues as chairman. But you have to hand it to him on leadership and vision.
When Jobs triumphantly returned as CEO of the company he co-founded in 1997, after being ousted, Wired published “101 ways to save Apple.” While some of the suggestions are naïve or plain stupid in hindsight, Jobs nailed several of them by default or by design: Speak to the consumer, not to the press; take better care of your customers, go wireless, and maintain differentiation.
Apple has become a $347 billion company — the most valuable on earth, however briefly — by reinventing consumer electronics, behaviour and expectations simply by listening and responding to what people want from their wireless mobile devices. Jobs has made innovation and challenging convention imperative.
Less than five years after Apple’s introduction of the iPhone (arguably the first mass adopted smartphone) the Pew Internet Project reports that more than one-third of U.S. adults have smartphones, more than one-quarter of whom rely on them as a sole means for Internet access. That is the changed behaviour and economics Apple wrought.
Forbes recently ranked Apple ahead of Google, but behind Amazon as No. 5 in the world’s most inventive companies. A look at Apple’s steady stream of patents underscores the depth and breadth of the company’s innovative attention to detail — perfecting what it has invented.
Apple’s business model is all about creating and improving value within the confines of a walled garden ecosystem that Jobs will control just as long as he can. (The proliferation of fake Apple stores selling iPad and iPhone knock-offs is the ultimate form of flattery and folly in China, where the company’s iPhone opportunity remains staggering.)
Ultimately, that territorial obsession may prove to be Apple’s Achilles’ heel, even with the company in the capable hands of long-time operations chief Tim Cook. Leading Bernstein analyst Toni Sacconaghi was quick to point out that the iconic Jobs is “irreplacable” and that Apple inevitably will suffer his absence.
The challenges to Apple’s future growth somewhere down the line are complex and worth pondering. Simply, how often can you introduce a device (like the iPad) that resets the dynamics, expectations and economics of media, marketing and so many other industries?
Citibank analyst Mark Mahaney writes about the huge value creation and revenue growth of diverse Internet-dependent companies. From Netflix and Priceline to Amazon and Google, all continue to generate healthy new revenues, thanks to “digital device penetration” led by the iPad and iPhone. That new value creation will continue long after the sale of Apple’s devices settle into a more normal sales pattern. Even the print and video content players grumbling loudly about Apple’s heavy-handed subscription rules are already making money.
How long can Jobs protect Apple’s walled-garden content distribution when Apple has empowered the rest of the world with the technology and marketing savvy to create competing — sometimes better — business models?
Can the ability of one company to produce — or for a marketplace to absorb — such extraordinary inventiveness plateau? And what are the rippling financial reverberations when it does? These are just some of the questions that point to Apple facing a very different future.
As the formidable Amazon swoops in with its own streaming content options built on its long-established cloud service and marketing/ distribution platform, Apple finds itself on the defensive. Apple’s latest move into social and streaming content in the cloud may well be its new iCloud application that allows users to share and store the music, photos and books that drive its powerful mobile devices.
Its big streaming content play could be spending a fraction of its $76 billion in cash — more than the United States government’s operating cash balance — to acquire Netflix or Hulu.
The timing is becoming more critical as investors and analysts (as most recently signaled by Barclay’s Capital) continue to shift more of their core holdings from traditional media to digital, where movies, TV production and print media are creating lucrative new business iterations. Barclay’s analyst Anthony DiClemente is betting that sometime this decade, the imbalance of 36% of overall media time is spent online, even though only 15% of domestic advertising budgets go there comes unglued. The collective economic force of mobile, global, social, local, e-commerce and video elements will eventually overshadow conventional advertising.
What we need now is for Apple to take the lead on addressing the universal security, privacy and plugged-in clutter demons running amok in our digital wonderland. As wireless mobile devices and their use change and mature, we are moving to a new, more urgent phase of concern. Apple can and should take the lead on such matters.
Whatever happens, there should be no underestimating Apple’s ability to remain one of the most valuable companies in a radically changing world. A footnote to that 1997 Wired article was advice to Apple from members of new tech’s elite. Microsoft’s well-known technology officer Nathan Myhrvod declared: “Apple is already dead…The Apple of the past was an innovation company that used software and hardware technology to redefine the way people experience computing.”
More than a decade later, Apple has redefined the way people experience an integrated life. That is Steve Jobs’ legacy. That’s going to be tough to beat.