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Month October 2011

5by5 | The Critical Path #10: The Means of Production

Dan and Horace talk about Apple’s quarter with an eye toward the operational commitments being made. We cover the cost of store openings, data center purchases and machinery used in manufacturing iOS devices. By tracking capital expenses we can get a clue about where Apple wants to go.

This episode is sponsored by Sourcebits, Handelabra Studio, and Shopify.

via 5by5 | The Critical Path #10: The Means of Production.

How did I get the iPhone number so wrong (part II)

Last quarter I was wrong because I thought Apple would throttle production of the iPhone 4 in the fourth quarter post-launch. “The reason growth would moderate was that Apple slowed production of the old model in order to switch out to the new model–we saw the same thing happen with the slowdown in iPad 1 and transition to iPad 2.”

As a result I seriously under-estimated iPhone volumes in the second quarter (FQ3). That failure led me to question whether the theory I was using in forecasting was still valid. When it came time for a new estimate I hesitated.

I had to choose whether to apply the old seasonality theory or to assume that the game had changed and that the product would now grow organically.

The first assumption would put the iPhone growth at 100%+ while the second would place it in the 60% to 80% range. I decided to dial in a figure somewhere in between at 90% but I’m not very confident in this

The result was an over-estimation by almost the same error as that of the previous quarter. Most of the other product lines were accurately predicted, but again, as a always, the whole forecast rides on the iPhone.

So where does that leave the theory?

Clayton Christensen and Siri

At the Open Source Business Conference in March 2004 Clayton Christensen gave a presentation. It’s available as an audio file for download here: Clayton Christensen | Capturing the Upside. I strongly recommend listening to the whole thing because it’s the quintessential Disruption lecture.

It has relevance in many areas of analysis, but when I was trying to think of a way to characterize the potential for Siri I recalled one particular passage that I saw as almost clairvoyant. Seven and a half years ago, Clay said:

… the next time you go to a computer superstore, go to the voice recognition software shelf and pick up a box there that’s called the IBM ViaVoice.  Now don’t buy it, but just look at it!  They have a picture of the customer on the box, and it’s an administrative assistant who is sitting in front of her computer wearing a headset speaking rather than word processing.

How much do Apple's factories cost?

In the last two posts (How much does an Apple store cost?The down payment on iCloud) I discussed two line items in the PP&E asset class on Apple’s Balance Sheet. In isolation, the data is interesting as it gives us an idea of the cost structure of stores and facilities being developed to sustain its current business model. In aggregate, it provides insight into Apple’s strategic intent.

To complete the picture, I will look at the third asset: “Machinery, equipment and internal use software.” It’s the yellow line in the chart below:

It’s plain to see at first glance that it’s the most significant asset. What does it represent and what conclusions can we draw about Apple’s strategy?

How much does an Apple store cost?

Apple loves to talk about its stores. They do it in every conference call, keynote event and SEC filing. There is a monotony with the repetition of how many they have and how many they are building and how pretty they are. They start to seem like commodities.

But if they were commodities why aren’t there any other networks of successful “vendor stores”?

The answer is partly in the odd integrated business model Apple maintains asymmetric to every other modular technology provider. Apple seems to want to control the relationship with the buyer. It’s also partly in the uniqueness of design, an obsession with the brand. But still, that does not explain why can’t it be copied.

The answer is in the economics.

To understand the cost of developing an Apple store, we turn again to the balance sheet. Fortunately for us, Apple reports details of a particular asset called “Leasehold Improvements.” It’s a substantial asset worth over $2.3 billion in the last statement. It represents “alterations made to rental premises in order to customize it for the specific needs of a tenant.”

The following chart shows the change in that figure quarter-over-quarter.

Can we tie these expenditures directly to stores?

The down payment on iCloud

Balance Sheets are not typical targets of focus in software or services or “high tech” companies. Except for Cash, there are usually not much in terms of assets for analysts to contemplate. With outsourced manufacturing, even hardware companies don’t maintain depreciable assets on their books.

Apple, as usual, is different. It turns out there is a lot there and there’s a lot to learn from what’s there. I’ve looked at the Cash and Long Term Securities in the past but in the next few posts I’ll dive into fixed (non-current) assets. Specifically Apple’s Property, Plant and Equipment.

Apple Inc. has selected North Carolina as the location for a new data center and will invest more than $1 billion in the project over nine years, Gov. Bev Perdue announced

via It’s Official: Apple iDataCenter to North Carolina » Data Center Knowledge.

When Apple committed to the North Carolina data center in mid-2009 the iPhone was two years old. Only 26 million iPhones had been sold to date (about as many as Apple now sells every quarter.) Clearly if the commitment was on such a scale there must have been a plan. A big plan.

We don’t know for sure if NC was used last week or whether it was handling only part of the load, but let’s assume it was. What I want to think about is how much iCloud would thus cost and hence what would be the cost for alternative providers of such a service. That analysis might let us determine if “cloud” forms a substantial barrier to entry for competitors.

Beside the public statement above (which may have been designed for political benefit) can we find any evidence of what Apple spent on data centers? That’s where the PP&E line comes in.

The following chart shows the Property, Plant and Equipment asset in Apple’s Balance Sheet.


Each line represents a particular type of asset and its value at a particular point in time. I will now pay attention to the blue line,

More media tablet hype

The iPad is still only slightly more than a year and a half old. Forecasting unit volumes has proven very difficult. But more than that it’s proven very difficult to appreciate the impact on the market it’s disrupting, PCs.

For some people this is obvious, but what if you don’t live and breathe disruptive theory? What if you don’t watch every data source like a hawk for hints of change? What if you are not even a technologist. How would you form an opinion on the effect of the iPad on PCs?

There are many industries and sectors about which I know nothing. If you asked me to analyze a market like industrial lubricants, I’d probably start by reading the consensus opinion put forward by the leading market analyst, an expert in that particular sector. That would form the baseline.

In the PC sector, that opinion is formed by Gartner (and IDC and Forrester perhaps). Gartner will get a lot of citations and its stats and opinion forms the baseline view. It may not be right, but we can expect it to be the “consensus”. This is because Gartner surveys a lot of data and interacts with a lot of insiders in the industry. They collect and weigh these inputs and put out what is likely to balance them all.

If Gartner says that the iPad is a “media tablet” that is not a PC they may be wrong. But they are also repeating what the PC industry is saying. So I value Gartner as a reflection of the consensus. If there is a significant gap between Gartner and what I conclude to be reality then there is an interesting opportunity as well as evidence of incumbent ignorance.

Let’s then look back on how Gartner has been reporting the iPad’s rise and the PC’s decline.[1]

In memoriam: Dennis Ritchie

Dennis Ritchie created C and co-created Unix. One of the unsung heroes of the modern world. He died yesterday.

His “The C Programming Language” was my bible during a formative period of my life.

In his memory I re-link a post I wrote a little over a year ago.

Unix’s Revenge | asymco


Windows Phone, a year on

Windows Phone is in limbo. The company acknowledged that it has performed below expectations. During the last quarter for which we have data (ending June) I have an estimate that Windows Phone sold only 1.4 million units (Gartner’s sell-through analysis suggests 1.7 million). That gives Microsoft a 1.3% share of units sold (Gartner 1.6%), a new low.

At the same time, comScore data shows

How many iPhones will be upgraded next year?

Last week I proposed that there were two significant markets for the new iPhone: 1) the existing iPhone user base 2) smartphone “non-consumers”. Today I want to dig a bit deeper into the first market to get an idea of what it amounts to.

The following chart shows the total iPhone shipments over time with an estimate for the mix of models during the last two years.

The way I calibrated the mix is by taking into account the statement that Tim Cook made