AAPL’s current problems = Steve Jobs’ legacy

To me, the most striking thing about AAPL’s most recent earnings report is that for the first time I can remember the company is showing the effects of overall industry weakness in its own results.

Before now, the combination of the attractiveness of its new offerings + geographical expansion had rendered it immune both to seasonality of demand and to the business cycle. No more—undeniable evidence that is products have become long in the tooth.

The problem AAPL faces in growing sales and earnings from this point onward is the direct result of the strategy Steve Jobs developed for the company. It’s also the same strategy that led to similar, though more severe, difficulties in his first go-round as CEO of AAPL—and which got him unceremoniously tossed out of the firm he helped found.

AAPL is a high-end niche company. It aims to make distinctively designed, ultra-cool consumer electronics products that it sells to affluent customers who are willing to pay very high prices to be affiliated with the brand.

Historically, luxury brands like AAPL know they will lose their cachet if they develop lower-priced mass market offerings. So they don’t try. For, say, high-end clothing brands this isn’t a huge problem. They can change colors or fabrics and sell multiple versions of the same design to their fan base. That doesn’t appear to work for laptops or smartphones, perhaps because personalizing them with software and information is time-consuming.

However, this leaves AAPL able to boost sales only by developing new blockbuster products. Despite AAPL’s astounding success in creating the iPod and following it with the (even bigger success of the) iPhone, blockbusters are apparently not everyday occurrences.

In addition, Jobs saddled AAPL with two design decisions that, despite his belief that he could impose his taste on the rest of the world, have proved to be incorrect. The original iPad is too big and heavy. APPL has fixed this problem with the mini. Anyone who has used a Galaxy SIII knows the iPhone screen is small and cramped by comparison. Jobs’ ghost has so far prevented AAPL from understanding this.

Of course, the niche strategy does have one short-term advantage. It disguises AAPL’s shortcomings in developing software. But that’s a dubious plus, in my view.

AAPL can change. It has a lot of clever people working for it. And it has a ton of money. It’s most difficult problem, I think, is to have the courage to move on from the Jobs myth it currently embraces.


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