September 2011
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Month September 2011

The case against the Kindle as a low end tablet disruption

In an Harvard Business Review post Rob Wheeler makes the case for the Kindle Fire as a disruptive innovation. I believe that it is but crucially I disagree that the Kindle Fire is a low end disruption.

My assessment of the Kindle Fire is based on the two attributes which Amazon highlights as the key selling points which offer a basis of differentiation and potential for asymmetric competition: a low price and a new browsing model. I believe that these two attributes result in two opportunities: one for low end disruption and another of new market disruption. I reject the first and tentatively support the second.[1]

The price

It’s immediately obvious that the price point of the Kindle Fire is well below alternatives. That forms the basis of disruptive potential, but before we jump to analyzing the disruption hypothesis we should determine whether and to what extent Amazon profits from the device directly. Profitability gives us a clue to where Amazon will apply resources and thus establish its trajectory of improvement.

We know the margin on the Fire is low because we can calculate the bill of materials for 7″ tablets. Gene Munster of Piper Jaffray estimates that Amazon “loses” $50 for each unit sold. We also know that the design Amazon used is essentially very similar to the RIM PlayBook and was sourced from the same ODM. RIM priced the product at $499 but has struggled to find buyers and is reluctantly dropping the price. We also can estimate that Apple with a product having more than twice the screen size is keeping modest (~30%) gross margins for at a price point approximately double that of the Fire. It does seem that Amazon does not have much or any margin to dip into.[2]

So the Fire can be classified as a low price product. Does that make it a low end disruption?

Comparing top lines: Apple vs. Microsoft

I’ve been providing analysis of Apple’s operating and financial performance for some time. Recently we’ve begun to look at comparisons of financial performance for comparable companies. Now it’s time to dig deeper and do comparisons of operating performance as well.

To start, Microsoft.

Whereas Apple has product lines (iPhone, iPad, iPod, Mac, iTunes, Peripherals and Software), Microsoft has business divisions (Windows & Windows Live, Server and Tools, Online Services, Business (Office), Entertainment and Devices). The charts show revenues for both Apple and Microsoft according to these defined segments.


The second chart should be a familiar one:

Note that the horizontal and vertical axes are the same. The period of coverage is from mid-2007 to the end of June 2011 which corresponds to the life of the iPhone. The vertical axis ranges up to $30 billion/quarter in both charts.

When shown this way, the exceptional growth for Apple becomes easier to understand (and perhaps Apple’s valuation premium of 15.7 P/E vs. Microsoft’s 9.5). Microsoft has been growing these past four years but not nearly at the rate of Apple. Microsoft grew quarterly revenues from the ~$15b range to ~$17b range.

Additional points of interest:

  • The Mac business generates more Revenue than Windows
  • iOS powered devices generate more revenue than all of Microsoft’s products put together
  • Apple’s revenues grew 413% since Q2 2007 while Microsoft’s grew 26%
  • The release of Windows 7 had a marked effect on revenues in the launch quarter but the sales did not seem to grow above the previous version’s run rate ($4.2b/quarter vs. $4.7b/q on average).

But most importantly, whereas Apple’s growth has come from new businesses (iPhone and iPad), Microsoft has organically grown existing businesses. The condemnation of leadership at Microsoft should hinge on the absence of significant top line growth. Note that neither the Online Services nor the Entertainment and Devices divisions had appreciable net growth.


5by5 | The Critical Path #8: In Memory of Robert Boyle

Episode #8 • September 28, 2011 at 2:00pm

Horace and Dan talk about why CEOs are paid so much and what analysis has come to mean in equities research and the value of cross-pollination between the camps that form around technology companies.

5by5 | The Critical Path #8: In Memory of Robert Boyle.

Visualizing the Steve Jobs era

On October 4th, Tim Cook will take the stage at Apple’s fall event. With Steve Jobs’ transition to head the Board of Directors of Apple and after serving as CEO for fourteen years, it is time to take a look at his reign.

Looking at his performance vs. peer companies from a capital market performance, I have composed the following two charts:

Market capitalization of selected peer companies by calendar quarter in USD million sorted by most recent market capitalization (1997-2011)

Market capitalization of selected peer companies in USD million sorted by recent market capitalization (1997-2010)

Market capitalization as share of combined market capitalization by calendar quarter sorted by most recent market capitalization (1997-2011)

When will Apple's share price reach $500?

Apple’s share price has recently hit a new all-time high, over $400 per share. As often happens there was no specific new information from the company to justify this increase. On the other hand there is usually no news to justify share price drops in Apple. In fact, the stock is up on what would be considered counter-indicative news: the resignation of a very important CEO.

But readers may recall that there is a measure of performance for Apple we can turn to that seems to show strong correlation to its stock price. It’s not income and it’s not growth in income but it’s the strength of the balance sheet.

I demonstrated this relationship last May with a post titled The market values Apple’s balance sheet, not its income statement.

It’s time to look at the data again to see if the relationship still holds. I added the data for Q2 and made some estimate about the cash position since July 25th (we will know this data with more accuracy when Q3 data is reported in a few weeks).

The slope of the line above has decreased slightly but a strong correlation can still be observed.

Decoding Steve Jobs: Select Commentary from – Harvard Business Review

Announcing a new HBS PRESS BOOK

Decoding Steve Jobs: Select Commentary from

by Norm Smallwood, Kate Sweetman, Dave Ulrich, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Jeffrey Pfeffer, Horace Dediu, James Allworth, Max Wessel, Rob Wheeler, Bill Taylor

Source: Harvard Business Press Books

14 pages.  Publication date: Sep 22, 2011. Prod. #: 10973-PDF-ENG

“The news of Steve Jobs’s retirement from Apple may be losing steam but observations on his legacy – and Apple’s leadership future – are only beginning. In recent years, leading thinkers have contributed their thoughts on the Jobs phenomenon on We’ve compiled a few of the best here, and we invite you to read them through the lens of business lessons to be learned.’ We’ve selected six pieces: two from after Jobs’s August 2011 announcement and four from before. We hope you will enjoy them, learn from them, and continue to turn to for ideas and inspiration.

Available for download for $1.99 via Decoding Steve Jobs: Select Commentary from – Harvard Business Review.

5by5 | The Critical Path #7: Genericized Trademarks

5by5 | The Critical Path #7: Genericized Trademarks.

Episode #7 • September 21, 2011 at 12:00pm

Horace and Dan look at brand theory and decide it should not be left to the experts. Also, we ask what jobs products are hired to do and tie that to the meaning imparted in the brand and visual imagery associated with it.

The perils of possession without utilization

[Updated with new charts including data from StatCounter and not NetMarketshare]

Generally speaking there is an equivalence drawn between iOS and Android as technologies and even as user experiences. However, as I’ve pointed out on several occasions there is a very clear nonequivalence in business models and thus the “fuel” which keeps each platform running. But does this difference in models lead to some difference in the way the products are “hired” to do what they do. Does it imply anything about how the products are likely to evolve?

I collected into one place all the data I could find about utilization (how much of a service and how often it’s used) and possession (both in terms of current ownership and new acquisitions) of iOS and Android.

Possession data comes from comScore survey data of share of US installed base of smartphones by platform at the end of June 2011 (first chart) and share of Global Smartphone Purchases as of Q2 2011 sourced from company reports and IDC (second chart).

Utilization data (vertical axes) comes from August  2011 shares of mobile browsers (from StatCounter June 2011), in-airport WiFi associations from Boingo in June 2011 (iPhone vs. Android), in-flight Wifi associations from Gogo in June 2011,  and In-app Ad impressions from Millenial Media also in June.

The charts are divided into nine sections corresponding roughly to “low”, “medium” and “high” utilization vs. possession.

The first chart compares a US-only population for possession vs. a mixture of global and US-only populations for utilization. The second chart compares a global population to the mix of US and global metrics.

What I found interesting is

The tell-tale signs suggesting a platform's demise

In the post on OS turning circles, I used the concept of a radius of turning as an analogy for agility. One problem with the analogy is that turning in circles implies a return to a starting point or at least a closing of the loop. The idea is that there is lifecycle repetition. However, in reality, this does not apply to the world of operating systems.

An OS, as a platform, usually has a finite life. It is born, grows and usually reaches a point where it is no longer supported. Sometimes, a new platform is born to take its place from the original owner but more often a replacement comes from a new challenger company.

So rather than circles, the analogy of OS lifetimes may be more accurate.

If we do think of platforms as finite, then the natural question is what causes an end? We need to look for patterns which may indicate when a platform is reaching end of life.

The difference in this analysis is that the measure of “age” of a platform I use is not time per se but versioning. The logic is that each major version is a meaningful and significant improvement in a platform which needs to be delineated, marketed and celebrated. It embodies the business logic as well as the engineering logic of the platform custodian.

Taking the data from the last post I added a few more platforms: Symbian[1], PalmOS and Blackberry OS[2] to seek out patterns. I also separated the desktop/portable OS’s from Mobile OS’s and plotted these version-demarcated lifespans.

One thing to observe is

OS turning circles: Questioning Windows' maneuverability

[Updated with Mac OS versions. See footnote 3.]

I’m glad Windows 8 is named the way it is. With Windows 7 Microsoft went to a numbering system which is much more rational than the mixed naming of the past. The number 8 actually corresponds to the actual sequential number of major versions of Windows released to date.

Windows proper actually did not start with what was called “Windows 1.0”. Windows actually started in April 1992 when Windows 3.1 was released. It was the first Windows which was an operating environment onto itself, apart from DOS. It was followed by Windows 95 (which we can call “2”), Windows 98 (“3”), Windows 2000 (“4”), Windows XP (“5”), Windows Vista (“6”), Windows 7 and now Windows 8.

Given this nomenclature and the dates of general availability of said versions, we can derive a measure of the frequency of upgrades. For example Windows “2” followed about 41 months after “1” and “3” took 34 months after “2”. If we continue this for all the versions, and assume “8” will launch by October next year, we can plot the cycle times of new Windows versions.

To make the story more interesting I added the same data for other OS platforms. OS X, iOS and Android have version numbers which correspond to the sequential order in which they were released. I am assuming that the numbering system (1.0, 2.0, 3.0 etc.) are meaningful and that major releases are given a new integer value.[1]