Last week, if you read the press, Apple’s world changed. ExxonMobil overtook Apple as the world’s most valuable company by market capitalisation, after Apple held that slot for just over a year. Apple today is being compared to Microsoft in its heyday 13 years ago. Some commentators have declared Apple past their peak, both in commercial performance and innovation capability. It must be hard to be Tim Cook at the moment.
Curiously, this coincided with Apple’s quarterly earnings announcement for the holiday season in 2012. By most measures, it was an outstandingly successful time for them: record revenues and very healthy profits. It was the biggest quarter by revenue of any company in history in terms of sales in value. Only Exxon has ever had anything like these profits.
But the numbers disappointed stock market analysts in a some very impactful ways, mostly around profit growth and a few other things. The stock plummeted to its lowest point in over 12 months in a matter of days.
This has happened before to other companies. Exxon, Microsoft, Cisco, GE and others have all had big highs followed by large declines in their stock prices. The shape of this peak in the graph stock price over time exhibits the similarity:
The Wall Street Journal has dubbed this “The $500 Billon Curse” and declared that Apple is not alone. The parallels with Microsoft go a bit deeper. In the last days of 1999, the world was a-buzz with dot-com fever and worries about Y2K. Microsoft was the darling of growth companies with a stock price more than double what it is today (and twice the average of the last 10 years). A big product release – Windows 2000 – was imminent. The PC business was extremely buoyant and Microsoft’s software ran half the Internet. In January 2000, Bill Gates stepped down as CEO. But there are some key differences too. In early 2000, the “tech wreck” plunged the NASDAQ from its peak to a wasteland of lost capital. In less than 6 months, Microsoft had lost two-thirds of its market capitalisation. Margin-calls on option-based borrowing were rife. Some Microsoft employees declared themselves bankrupt rather than cover their losses. I know. I was there at the time.
The reality of Apple today is that they are an enormous company: over 80,000 direct employees with revenues of over $160 billion per annum. They have over $120 billion in cash. They sold 75 million iOS devices (mostly iPhones & iPads) in 12 weeks. They have over 500 million iTunes customers and 200 million iCloud customers. Their supply chain is similarly huge. They, unlike Microsoft in 2000, lost their founder-CEO Steve Jobs to cancer in 2011. There were recent misteps, around Maps & Siri that lost a lot of trust from a lot of people. But the most important reality today is the twin challenges of competition in a maturing marketplace. That changes the fortunes of almost any company in any industry.
Samsung and Google have teamed up to be the most formidable competition to Apple. Amazon is another very strong competitor. The other significant dynamic affecting Apple is a kind of internal competition. The iPad is cannibalising some Mac sales and the iPhone (and its sibling the iPod Touch) are cannibalising iPod sales. Tim Cook is right to see this as an opportunity rather than a problem but the transition takes time and worries investors. Apple is also doing a lot more things now than it was when the iPhone and iPad were released. That creates competition for internal resources. And then there are all the patent lawsuits that consume enormous amounts of time and effort that are a distraction to direct competition and effective internal management. As Tim Cook said of them, “They’re a pain in the ass”.
Of course, Google and Samsung have had many kinds of relationships with Apple over the years. Eric Schmidt, Google’s Chairman and former CEO, sat on Apple’s Board for years. Andy Rubin, Head of Google’s Android division, is ex-Apple. Samsung has been a major supplier to Apple for many years although Apple is winding that relationship back. Even Google is reported to have counselled Samsung in 2010 that the Galaxy S II smartphone was a bit too much like the iPhone. And of course, there was the landmark finding in a US court last year that confirmed the opinion of many that Samsung had indeed infringed on Apple’s patents. But since then, a few of those patents have been declared invalid. More and more patent cases are being thrown out of court. It seems Apple’s intellectual property is not as legally safe as it was before.
Samsung’s execution, patent infringements notwithstanding, has been superb. Their Galaxy S III series of smartphone and a number of other Android-based devices are selling extremely well. Samsung has a very vertically-integrated business model right down to silicon manufacturing. Their partnership with Google on the Android side seems to work very well indeed. Samsung’s sales and marketing expenditures in the smartphone market segment are 10 times what Apple’s are in recent years. Their relationship with the telecom carriers is excellent and getting better whilst Apple’s was never very good and is getting worse.
But more importantly, two sleeping giants have been awakened by this titanic struggle: Microsoft and Nokia. It’s early days yet but there are signs of momentum emerging from this partnership. Microsoft understands the enterprise software market much better than Apple or Google. Nokia understands the telco handset device business much better than Samsung. Both Microsoft and Nokia need their partnership to work as a matter of future viability, although other handset makers are getting on the Windows Phone 8 bandwagon now. Nokia has some very important cloud assets that Microsoft leverages in their online properties, like maps. Both Microsoft and Nokia know what it’s like to be dominant and lose it. But they’ve both left their run very late in the game and have no appreciable market share in advanced modern smartphones or tablets. It’s a very much do-or-die scenario for them both.
Apple has been down before. They’ve suffered the slings and arrows of intellectual property loss before. They’ve certainly had internal missteps before. What started out as a dream run for Tim Cook after Steve Jobs has turned into one of the most challenging situations in the history of the US technology industry. I have faith in what they’re doing. I hope they can execute at least as well as most of their competition.