For reasons that defy explanation, The Guardian recently ran an article from Mike Daisey who posits that we’ve hit ‘Peak Apple.’ Hot on the heels of Apple’s most successful fiscal year in company history, Daisey employs the same recycled lines about how Apple, by mere virtue of its success, is destined to fall.
As Horace Dediu once pointed out, Apple is curiously looked upon as a “company that is in a perpetual state of free-fall.”
Typical Apple nonsense aside, what makes The Guardian piece so jarring is that no one at the revered publication saw anything wrong with running a piece penned by someone who, not that long ago, was embarrassingly outed as a liar and shameless self-promoter who completely fabricated stories about working conditions at Foxconn in order to paint Apple in an unflattering light.
In 2012, NPR was forced to retract a This American Life episode starring Daisey after discovering “significant fabrications”, prompting famed NPR producer Ira Glass to issue the following statement: “We’re horrified to have let something like this onto public radio. Our program adheres to the same journalistic standards as the other national shows, and in this case, we did not live up to those standards.”
But maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to shoot the messenger in this case. Perhaps we should give Daisey a second chance and examine the reasons why he believes we’ve hit Peak Apple.
After all, people have been predicting Apple’s impending decline for years on end. Is it possible that they may finally be right?
Well, let’s dive in and take a look, shall we?
Daisey lays out his case against Apple early on, pointing out that Apple’s recent earnings report should raise a few suspicious eyebrows. Per usual, Daisey’s argument begins by honing in on iPhone sales figures.
Well, there are signs, if you are interested in looking for them. The numbers this quarter look great, but the number of iPhones sold actually fell short of the street’s projections. That doesn’t sound so terrible, except that for a number of years Apple has beaten the street’s numbers, sometimes by a shockingly large amount. Apple doesn’t usually simply make its numbers – it exceeds them..
Well for starters, it’s not terribly instructive to put much weight into Wall Street’s notoriously fickle expectations. Instead, it’s much more helpful to actually focus on, oh I don’t know, cold hard data. And as the numbers pertain to the iPhone, they are resoundingly strong. Even if we put aside Apple’s record-setting iPhone 6s launch, Apple’s recent earnings report shows that iPhone sales year over year were up 22% while revenue from the iPhone increased by 36%. Not only is Apple selling more iPhones than ever before, iPhone-based revenue is still growing by leaps and bounds.
Which brings Daisey to his second point, and another oft-used argument used to explain why Apple is a precarious situation: Apple is too reliant on the iPhone.
Exacerbating this is that Apple has, through success, effectively become a one-product company. iPhone sales dwarf the rest of its offerings, to a distorting degree – the revenue Apple makes from everything that isn’t an iPhone is easily outweighed by that one device.
Curiously, Apple is the only tech company ever called out for deriving the bulk of its revenue from a single product. Google derives 90+% of its revenue from advertising and we don’t often, or ever, hear about how we’ve hit peak Google.
Besides, the revenue Apple generates with the iPhone is hardly a reflection of a weak product lineup. On the contrary, it speaks to the unrivaled staying power of the iPhone, a product that has enjoyed unparalleled success over many years in an industry that often shuffles incumbents in and out like a revolving door. The fact that the iPhone remains as successful as it is and continues to account for billions in revenue every year is, if anything, a sign of strength, not weakness.
Also, note the classic ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ argument Daisey cleverly employs here. Early on, he argues that Apple might be faltering because iPhone sales were too low. Just a few paragraphs later, he effectively argues that Apple is selling too many iPhones and is becoming too reliant upon its iconic smartphone. No matter what Apple does, Daisey has an ‘Apple is toast’ argument waiting in the holster.
Moving along, Daisey next turns his attention to the Apple Watch.
How Apple chooses to present its numbers tells us something, too. Apple traditionally breaks out its Mac, iPad and iPhone sales… It instead created an “Other” category, which is where the Apple Watch currently lives as well – it means we don’t really know how Apple’s chronometer is doing, but if the news was truly fantastic we’d be hearing about it … and very little was said at the last quarterly phone call.
It’s a fair point. If Apple Watch sales were skyrocketing, it’s a safe bet Apple would be the first to boast about it in a press release. At the same time, it’s important to remember two things. One, Apple Watch sales have increased in each successive quarter, this according to Tim Cook. Two, early Apple Watch sales have already outpaced early iPhone and iPad sales, which is to say that some products don’t really take off until a year or two after initially hitting store shelves. It’s easy to forget, but important to remember, that products like the iPhone and iPod weren’t runaway hits right off the bat.
With respect to the iPad, Daisey writes:
The iPad is a device Apple probably wishes it had an excuse to hide numbers on as well – it has been shrinking year-over-year for quite some time. Apple’s language on the iPad has evolved – once spoken of as the post-PC device that would change the nature of computing forever, now that it has been selling less and less of them this kind of revolutionary rhetoric has vanished. With Macs holding steady as a beloved niche product at around 10% of their income, it’s notable that services, such as the App Store and Apple Pay, made almost as much for Apple as selling Macs did this last quarter.
Again, what Daisey sees as a weakness could easily be viewed as a strength. iPad sales are plummeting, there’s no getting around that. Still, the Mac is doing better than ever, with Apple having set a new Q4 sales record during its most recent quarter. What’s more, the fact that Apple’s services revenue is growing speaks to Apple’s uncanny ability to keep generating new revenue streams to pick up the slack when devices like the iPad hit a slump.
Daisey, however, finds Apple’s penchant for making money hand over first worrisome:
If Apple’s second-largest growth area is services, it reminds one of a different company in an earlier time – much of Microsoft’s empire was built out of services. That’s like not what Apple is today, but when much of the company’s energy is spent chasing an initiative such as Apple Music, which has no real innovation behind it but leverages size and marketing to recreate something that already exists … well, it doesn’t feel like the Apple we’ve known.
If Apple wasn’t getting into the services game, it’s a good bet that Daisey would point to this as a cause for concern. It’d be far too easy for Daisey, or any other armchair pundit, to claim that Apple is too set in its ways to successfully adapt to the ever-changing shifts in the tech industry. Fact of the matter is, the tech industry is constantly evolving and successful companies learn how to evolve along with it. If that means that Apple adjusts course and rolls out Apple Music, that seems much smarter than sitting idly by and waiting for digital download revenue to dry up.
As long as Apple manages to keep its revenue growing at a respectable clip, does it really matter how the pie is divided up amongst iPad sales, Mac sales, and services?
Towards the end of his piece, Daisey veers off into strange and uncharted waters. Apple, which again, is coming off its most successful year in company history, apparently needs a healthy kick in the behind to keep momentum alive.
Now could be an excellent time for Apple to get set back on its heels. Historically, the company has never been stronger than when it’s the underdog – it focuses the company, which is precisely what Jobs did when he returned to the company. As Apple stretches into almost every part of our lives, some sign of slowing momentum could actually encourage them to focus rather than accelerate.
Alas, the ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ sentiment rears its ugly head yet again. Truthfully, it’s hard to make complete sense of the mental gymnastics game Daisey is playing here; apparently the only way for Apple to maintain its success is for it to become, umm, less successful? Besides, Apple hasn’t really played the role of underdog in years and it still seems to be doing just fine. Arguably, Apple’s role as the perennial underdog emphatically ended when the iPod became a runaway hit in 2003.
Daisey ultimately concludes with this gem:
It’s almost been a decade since the iPhone, and the longer that is Apple’s only crown jewel the better the chance they will be disrupted. Someone else eventually will bring something new to the table. It is possible we will look back in a decade and know we couldn’t have seen that this was the moment of Peak Apple because it is always clearer in retrospect when something is past its peak.
Time will tell. It always does.
Sure, with the luxury of of a 10-year cushion, Daisey writes that this might very well be Peak Apple. And of course there’s no reason for him to actually provide any compelling evidence because, you know, time will always tell.
Again, Daisey here employs some nifty doublespeak in a strained effort to make his point. Note how Daisey writes that Apple needs to be put into the role of the underdog so that it can regain its focus. In the same breath, Daisey writes that if Apple keeps on focusing on the crown jewel that is the iPhone, they’ll be disrupted and fall from the mountain top.
Can you imagine Daisey as Apple CEO issuing out directives? Team, we need to sell more iPhones! Actually, on second thought, let’s stop focusing on the iPhone so much. Wait, I think we need a setback so that we focus our efforts on, oh, I don’t know, the iPhone maybe?
As it stands today, Apple is the most profitable company on the planet. Mac sales are growing and the company still enjoys more than 90% of the profits across the entire smartphone market. They have more money than they know what to do with, the Apple Watch is still in its infancy, a TV subscription service is likely coming soon, and who knows, perhaps an Apple Car is in the works as well. What’s more, Apple’s annual revenue in 2016 will likely top a quarter of a trillion dollars.
Apple may one day hit the mountain top and the iPhone may ultimately be disrupted by some crazy new device, but Daisey provides absolutely no compelling arguments to bolster his claims that we’re at that moment already.