thinking about Apple (AAPL)

setting the stage

(I should say at the outset that, although at one time I owned AAPL for years, I don’t hold it now and haven’t for a long while (except for a couple of days in January).

Q:  What does AAPL do for a living?

A:  It makes smartphones and other mobile computing/consumer electronics devices targeted at affluent consumers willing to pay a premium price for the perceived superior aesthetics and more user-friendly software.

A mouthful.

in other words, a niche player…

If my definition is correct, AAPL has decided to carve out a niche for itself in the high end of the mobile device market.  It’s a very desirable and lucrative niche, one it dominates.  But AAPL is a niche player, nonetheless.  It’s a little like TIF or WYNN.

Like any market strategy, this one has its pluses and minuses.  Anyone listening to the AAPL earnings calls over the past few years can’t help having heard the persistent questioning from Bernstein about what the company would do once everyone who can afford a $600 smartphone already has one.

Move downmarket?  Unlikely.  TIF is the only company I’m aware of who has taken this path and not completely destroyed its brand image–thereby losing its original customers.  Better to lose low-margin sales in the mass market than to kill the goose.

Absent new blockbuster products, however, the price of maintaining the upmarket strategy for AAPL is that sales slow as volume-oriented manufacturers ride down the cost curve and churn out smartphones that retail for $100-$300.

That’s where we are now.

Tons of publicly-available-for-free data has been available for years showing where the smartphone marke, and AAPL, have been heading.  So this outcome can’t have been a surprise.

…with an “ecosystem”

Another characteristic of AAPL devices is the “ecosystem,”  which has tended to make customers more sticky.  All AAPL devices work well together.  All reside in a “walled garden” created by AAPL software–reminiscent of the way AOL worked back in the infancy of the internet.

on this description…

…the current PE of 10.8x–8.0x, after adjusting for cash on the balance sheet–seems crazy low.  It’s less than INTC’s, for instance.

is there more to the story?

There’s an obvious risk in securities analysis of taking the current stock price as the truth and trying to come up with reasons why  it is what it is, rather than taking out a clean sheet of paper and trying to imagine what the future will be like.  The Efficient Markets hypothesis taught in business schools despite overwhelming evidence that emotional storms of greed and fear that routinely roil financial markets, encourages this thinking.

Admittedly possibly being influenced by the recent swoon in the AAPL share price, I’ve been asking myself recently whether the conventional wisdom about AAPL, which is my description above, is correct.

I have two questions.  No answers, but questions anyway.

my questions

1.  Is the high-end niche defensible?

In most luxury retail it is.  In consumer electronics, it clearly isn’t.  Think: Sony.  Based on the (small) number of entrants in the mobile appliance market and the (small) number of products sold, AAPL may be closer to Sony than to Hermès.

2.  Is the “walled garden” a mixed blessing?

It certainly worked for AOL for a long while. But then the Wild West of the early internet was gradually tamed and customers discovered there was a much more interesting world outside the garden.

I don’t think AAPL aficionados have any intention of tunneling out–at least not yet.  But the inaccessibility of AAPL customers to GOOG has prompted the latter to introduce the “hero phone” later in the year through its Motorola Mobility subsidiary.  The idea seems to be to create an attractive, user-friendly, high-end smartphone, load it with GOOG software and sell it at cost.

The “Made in USA” label and the management description of the “hero” seem to me to indicate it’s targeted directly at the large concentration of AAPL customers here in the US.  It’s an open question whether GOOG/Motorola can create a smartphone that’s attractive to iPhone users, or whether they’ll consider switching.  But a technologically inferior PC sure did undermine the Mac with consumers in the 1980s almost solely because it was a lot cheaper (btw, the Mac lost out to IBM with corporate customers because it had no clue how to sell to them).  And the wireless carriers will certainly welcome the “hero,” assuming it works well.

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