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Post-keynote Apple event San Francisco – September 8

 

I will be presenting my latest analysis of Apple at the Sustain event in San Francisco on Thursday Sept 8th, the day after Apple’s keynote, along with Ben Bajarin, Carolina Milanesi who will alsob equipped with their latest market insights.

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There is a time to disrupt and there is a time to sustain.

Sustain event is about understanding Apple’s levers of control to sustain the iPhone as it moves into direct competition with Android. We will also examine positions of top five technology brands: Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft.

Learn more about the event at Airshow.io. Given he short notice, we are keeping this event on the small side so reserve your seat soon.

Counting Apple’s Customers

Berkshire Hathaway, led by Warren Buffett, now owns about $1.4 billion of Apple. Occasionally we hear about various “celebrity investors” taking positions in the company or exiting those positions. The last one I remember was Carl Icahn. He seems to have exited Apple before Berkshire entered. There are some who will act because of these decisions. You should not be one of them.

Nor should the management of the firm act in response to investor decisions or concerns. Management is specifically distinct from ownership in the corporate construct precisely in order to bring professionalism to the role. The manager must set priorities as they see fit, irrespective of what the transient owner might prioritize. The separation of ownership and management is one of the greatest innovations in commerce.

There are many opinions on what priorities should be. Delivering a specific financial ratio, achieving a certain market position, changing the world for the better. These have all been cited as top priorities. I happen to believe that what matters most is the creation and preservation of customers. That is because I see customer creation as causal to the other desirable outcomes and it is therefore the more important priority.

And this is why, whenever possible, I try to deduce how well a company is performing on this metric. The greatest companies (by market capitalization) today are certainly examples of achievement in customer creation. Facebook, Microsoft and Google are members of the “billion user club” or companies that crossed a billion active users.

But do they really have a billion customers? Microsoft has over 1.2 billion users but many (most?) of those users are using computers that their employers provide on which Microsoft software was installed. They may not have made the choice to purchase the tools they are using. Microsoft certainly has millions of customers in the form of “accounts” purchasing its products and services, but It’s not likely that there are a billion people who have directly chosen to buy a Microsoft product.

Facebook has over a billion daily users. Facebook users are certainly using the service of their own accord but they are not paying for the service. Quite the contrary, the actual customers of Facebook are companies buying an advertising service offered in the form of exposure to those billion users. The Facebook users are the product being sold, not the buyers. Thus Facebook’s total number of paying customers is probably only in the tens or hundreds of thousands.[1]

Same with Google. We don’t know how many accounts Google send invoices to but the number is very likely not even in the 100 million range. Its billions of users are beneficiaries of services but they are not paying Google/Alphabet.

Amazon has many millions of customers, if not billions. Prime membership is above 50 million but not above 100 million. Amazon may some day have a billion customers but there are limits to how quickly that can happen. The growth potential is governed by logistics and that’s as much an issue with atoms as it is with electrons.

Which brings us to Apple. Apple does not offer a figure on its specific user count, but we have some viable proxies:

  • iCloud accounts reached 782 million in February 2016.
  • iTunes accounts reached 885 million in September 2014
  • Active devices reached one billion in January 2016. That number is likely above 1.1 billion now. (Includes all devices, hence Macs and Apple TVs).

These figures are also parts of patterns (shown below) which offer an indication of predictable growth.

Screen Shot 2016-08-17 at 9.23.26 PM

Screen Shot 2016-08-17 at 9.27.38 PM

In addition to the absolute figures and their growth there is also the question of loyalty (frequently cited by the company), switching from other platforms (also frequently cited) and revenues. The company publishes specific figures on service revenues for consumer attached devices showing a run rate of $41 billion/yr in services for their device base.

In combination, a picture emerges which shows that Apple has nearly a billion customers. I can’t say how many with any precision but it’s certainly above 500 million (on the basis of iCloud and iTunes accounts). It’s below one billion because some users have more than one device.

Even though it has not happened yet, the trend is pretty clear. Apple will at some point in time have a billion paying customers.

What is more significant than the specific count is that these customers mostly chose to be customers individually. Some may have been given the products as gifts, but the vast majority bought the items for themselves. Apple benefitted from hundreds of million of individual purchase decisions.

Furthermore, having made the decision to purchase, chances are that they will do so again. Apple customers are a recurring revenue stream. In fact, it’s fairly easy to calculate that being an Apple customer is equivalent to spending about $1/day on its products and services, indefinitely.

Apple is not there yet, but a billion dollars a day from a billion customers is not inconceivable. That would be quite an achievement.

Notes:
  1. Orr Sella @orrsella pointed out that Facebook has stated that they have 3 million businesses actively advertising on their networks. []

Tesla and SolarCity: Straddling the modular/integrated divide

A merger is the result of two entities in the same business joining forces. It is usually justified through “synergy”, a euphemism for removing redundancies from their unity. Arithmetically, the desired outcome is that the resulting organization should be smaller than the individual parts (which is desired if the available market is shrinking.)

An Integration is the answer to the question of “Why two companies in different businesses are better off together.” Arithmetically, it suggests that the proposed sum is greater than the individual parts.

The spin-off is the response to a situation where one company houses two unrelated businesses.

For completeness, we can define an acquisition as the purchase of an unequal entity in order to improve the value of the acquirer.

The logic of any of these is that there is a disequilibrium which offers an opportunity to those who can exploit it. What the analysis fundamentally assumes is that the status quo of firm boundaries is not optimal.

Much of the measurement of the balance in the equations assumes that the overall industry is stable and that the problems (technical or market) are largely understood and that there is no learning that needs to happen. Boundaries need to be re-drawn because they are imperfect. Boundaries may have grown imperfect for many reasons: founders/owners were separate, markets and technologies evolve at different rates, resources are inflexible, processes are entrenched and values are outdated.

However, all this arithmetic can be safely thrown out of the window if there is a new industry in the making. If there is no balance to begin with because there is an entirely new problem being posited. That is, not only do we not know the answers to technical or market questions, we don’t even know what the right questions are.

When looking at the history of industry creation, the breakthroughs were always about the discovery of the right questions to ask. The early automobile industry was a scramble for solutions to a huge number of technical and market questions: technology, business model, infrastructure, usability, customer segmentation. From 1886 until 1915 there were many grand experiments with thousands of automobile firms springing up.[1]

Early computing, internet, mobile and consumer durables industries went through similar periods of grand experimentation. But the breakthroughs occurred when someone was able to ask (and subsequently answer) a question that nobody had asked before.

Henry Ford asked, “What would enable everyone to have a car”. The result was  not a better car but a better production system.

Steve Jobs asked, “What would enable everyone to have a computer”. The result was not a faster computer, but a more approachable computer.

Akio Morita asked, “What would enable young people to have their own music”. The result was not a better audio quality but a smaller audio player.

Kiichiro Toyoda asked, “How can a car be built without faults”. The result was not a bigger factory but many smaller ones.

Jeff Bezos asked, “What would cause people to do their shopping online”. The result was not a lot of unique sites but one infinite one coupled to a logistics and computing service.

Having great taste in questions turns out to be the principal quality of the successful industrialist: The creation of economic value and power well beyond the boundary of the firm itself.

When the correct question is asked, resources can be efficiently marshaled to answer it. The wrong or incomplete question leads to inefficient resource allocation. And so the architecture of the solution can be built. If the new problem statement is a technical one then an integrated implementation is required. If the new question identifies non-consumption then a modular implementation is required. Each of these approaches suggests different customer sequencing strategies and different application of resources and processes.

There is no right architecture for industry creation. What matters is asking the right question.

So is Elon Musk, today, asking the right question?

Notes:
  1. Estimated 3000 world-wide []

State of the Ecosystem

At WWDC 2016 Apple offered a set of new data points to illustrate its ecosystem’s robustness.

First, the number of registered developers increased by 2 million in the last year to a total of 13 million. That is a growth rate of 18%. To compare this total consider that Oracle claimed in 2014 9 million Java developers and IDC claimed in 2014 there were 18.5 million software developers in the world, of which 11 million were professional software developers and 7.5 million were hobbyist developers. It’s therefore possible that Apple’s “market share” among developers is close to 70%.

Second, App installs have now reached 130 billion. The cumulative growth is shown in the graph below:

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 12.25.11 PM

The rate of growth is also shown in the following graph:

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 12.33.35 PM

Note that the rate of growth continues to increase and is now above 30 billion/yr. It turns out that apps continue to be a popular download item. The size of the audience continues to grow (see graph below) and it’s therefore understandable that activity in the store continues to grow.

Dialogue with Sviatoslav Rosov for CFA Institute Magazine

 

Why is an expert on disruptive technology “worried” about financial innovation?

 

Excerpt from “Chaos Is Hard to Predict”

Does technical innovation always end in displacement/ replacement?
The professions being challenged include physicians, lawyers, consultants, and analysts. Algorithms and sensors could conceivably displace some subset. However, it’s not a certainty. One way to fend off automation displacement is to redefine and change the scope of the profession.

The classic example is from the birth of the Industrial Revolution. As machines replaced certain tasks, new jobs were created which required higher skills and hence edu- cation, leading to universal matriculation and eventually the popularity of higher education. Professionals need to “invent” new jobs for themselves as a means to keep disruption at bay.

Read more: CFA Institute Magazine.

 

Why does Apple TV deserve to exist?

Since writing Peak Cable six months ago, surveys, research and analysis have contributed to the themes of unbundling the TV package. The data under scrutiny is, as usual, the data that can be gathered. Unfortunately the data that can’t be gathered is where the insight into what is happening may lie. For instance, what matters for an entertainer is not how much you’re watched but how much you’re loved. Measuring love is done poorly with data on payment for subscriptions.

A better proxy might be time. Liam Boluk makes the point in his post that “focusing on cord cutting or even cord shaving largely misses the point.” Don’t follow the dollars, he says, follow the time or engagement. “Relevance” is what matters.

His data shows how linear TV has fallen by roughly 30% among the young (12-34) in the last five years. The trouble for the TV bundle (and advertisers) is that this is the most culturally influential group. They are also the group which will grow into the highest income group over the next decade. And this group does not love TV.

We have to remember that it was the youth who drove early radio, TV and consumer electronics markets. Those young are now the old which still cling to the old media, served by companies that grew old with them. They are the “high-end” customers with which Nielsen itself has grown. They have the most money to spend and they are the targets for the ads[1]

Paying $150/month to watch incontinence and erectile dysfunction ads—at a time not of your choosing—is preposterous for the young. They may like the programs but not the way they are packaged, delivered or interrupted. They are not smarter than their parents. They, like their parents, took to new technology more quickly. What makes the technology new is also what lets its makers separate the content from its delivery. These new technologies allow “modularizing” or unbundling that which was was integrated/bundled and thus allow their developers to focus on the customer’s real jobs-to-be-done.

Unsurprisingly, incumbents have responded by throttling access to original programming–an asset over which they still exert influence as distributors. Netflix and Amazon are taking the path of responding with their own blockbuster productions. Although Silicon Valley has more capital to deploy than Hollywood  this battle of attrition is by no means one that incumbents will win, and generally, it’s not going to be pretty.

Tweaking the nose of the incumbent might not be the way to establish asymmetry. The better tactic may be to help the system survive but offer a “short-term alternative”. This is how iTunes took on and won Music. When Napster and file sharing created a clear and present danger to the industry, Apple’s approach of a controlled alternative allowed the industry to finally move to a digital download model.

Notes:
  1. no longer the Pepsi generation, they are the Depend and Viagra and pharmaceuticals generation []

Meaningful Contribution

What if Apple did make a car? How significant could their products be? What would it take to influence the industry’s architecture?

The global market is forecast to reach 88.6 million vehicles in 2015 and there are many ways to segment it. One could look at geography or at product configurations or the emergence of new powertrain technologies.

One could also look at the participants.

In 2014 Toyota was the top selling automaker with a total sales volume of 10.23 million vehicles. The following graph shows the leading 15 producers and the percent of total production.

Screen Shot 2015-09-25 at 9-25-2.19.47 PM

 

Apple Assurance

Apple is categorized as a vendor of consumer electronics. More specifically, a member of the “Electronic Equipment” industry in the “Consumer Goods” sector. If indeed this is what it’s thought to be selling, there is a problem because it isn’t  what its customers are buying.

Apple’s customers buy a mix of hardware, software and services under a brand that assures a certain quality of experience. This bundling and integration of otherwise disparate things is why the brand is such a success.

This anomaly between what Apple is thought to sell and what buyers actually buy can leave the casual observer confused. As a result the company’s categorization as vendor of hardware deeply discounts its shares. It is, in other words a less valuable business. This is because a seller of consumer electronics does not benefit from “system valuation” since there is minimal loyalty to the product after the sale.

The consumer electronics vendor has no network to leverage, no ecosystem adding value after the sale, no platform and works through multiple levels of distribution to reach the customer. In contrast, a system vendor can expect benefits from network effects, ecosystems, and a coveted relationship with the end user.

The result is that the valuation of a consumer electronics vendor is based on the momentum of individual products. Apple has always been valued this way. Each hit product is considered to be a stroke of luck/genius and the chances of recurring are discounted to about zero. Regardless of the fact that it has a track record of “home runs”, Apple’s hit rate is not considered sustainable.[1]. Certainly Apple is not valued as being able to generate reliably recurring revenues.

But what if we were to value Apple on the basis of what people are buying rather than what it’s thought to be selling?

The model is simple enough: determine the number of users, estimate the lifespan of the products, and figure out the services attached to the products; then, given the price, obtain a price per product per day. You then can get a recurring revenue figure.

I did just that and the results are in the following table:

Screen Shot 2015-09-15 at 5.13.27 AM

Notes:
  1. The P/E ratio is the primary indicator in this analysis []

Fluid Coupling

When exactly did enterprises become late adopters of technology? We know that they were some of the first buyers of computers. IBM sold tabulating and later computing machines to businesses starting in the 1910s. During the 1980s it was businesses which bought PCs in significant numbers to augment, and later replace, their centralized computing resources. Networking was in use in government and in business long before consumers saw any value in it.

In my talks I often point out that if you wanted to create a near-monopoly in computing in the 1990s all you needed was to convince 500 people to adopt your technology: the IT managers of the Fortune 500. If the largest companies used your product then they would impose the standard on all their suppliers and distributors and pretty soon there would be no alternatives.

So what happened during the last decade or so?

Today IT departments are known as the Information Denial department.  I recall that when the DVD first became an option on desktop or laptop computers, IT departments were first to decline the option (presumably because it would be used for entertainment rather than work.) When instant messaging first became available, it was IT departments who blocked the ports. When mobile devices with cameras became available signs went up that no cameras would be allowed on company premises. When USB sticks became available, USB ports started getting glued shut. When iOS became available, no devices running it were allowed on the network. Then came Facebook, Instagram and dozens of social media.

This pattern of not only a refusal to adopt but an outright ban on new technologies by enterprises made them fall off the radar of technology developers. Quite simply everyone outside the supply chain into enterprises stopped developing new markets around them. From venture funds to developers, enterprises fell out of the business plans.

The enterprise stood as a place of “legacy” and “security” which prevented mobile or other forms of computing. Paradoxes emerged wherein an administrative assistant had more computing power in his pocket than the CEO had in her data center; where the same assistant would know what was happening faster than any of the bosses. Homes had better connectivity than offices and productivity at small firms increased faster than at big firms. Incidentally, even the slowest enterprises were faster then the government. The bigger the firm, the slower and stupider it seemed. Were large firms employing dumb managers or did being a manager in a large firm make you dumb?

One resolution to this paradox might be that mobility and the movement of processing onto consumer devices increased the cadence of product development to such a degree that the purchase cycle and dollar amounts involved ran out of the range which companies could absorb.

A simple way to explain it is this: A company takes longer to decide to purchase a device than the device’s shelf life. In other words, by the time all the salespeople and committees and standards setting and golf playing and dining and site visits would be completed, the object whose purchase was being discussed would be discontinued.

A more onerous issue is that companies have procedures for accepting technologies (capital expenditures) which require high degrees of interaction and decision making. In order to step though these procedures, the vendors need to have sales people who need to invest lots of their time and therefore need to be compensated with large commissions. If those commissions are a percent of sale then the total sales price needs to be large enough “to make it worth while to all parties”. As a result, paradoxically, an enterprise technology must be sufficiently slow and expensive to be adopted.

Mobility was disruptive to enterprise because the new computing paradigm was both too fast and too cheap to be implementable.

This implies that the problem with enterprises is not the stupidity of its buyers. They are no less smart than the average person–in fact, they are as smart with their personal choices for computing as anybody.  The problem is that enterprises have a capital use and allocation model which is obsolete. This capital decision process assumes that capital goods are expensive, needing depreciation, and therefore should be regulated, governed and carefully chosen. The processes built for capital goods are extended to ephemera like devices, software and networking.

It does not help that these new capital goods are used to manage what became the most important asset of the company: information. We thus have a perfect storm of increasingly inappropriate allocation of resources to resolving firms’ increasingly important processes. The result is loss of productivity, increasingly bizarre regulation and prohibition of the most desirable tools.

Which brings us to the latest announcement of collaboration between the new disruptor of computing Apple and the vendors supplying Enterprises like IBM and Cisco.

Apple was the loser in the standardization of computing during the 1990s but is the winner in the mobilization of computing during the 2010s. The company positioned itself in both cases on consumer computing but it never gave up on enterprises.

The approach of Apple seems to be to enable the larger suppliers of technology to enterprises to bundle iOS as part of the acceptable set of services and products. In essence, Apple is complying with the requirement to be slow and expensive in order to be adopted. It can maintain the cadence of product development while attaching itself to the purchase cycle of the enterprise.

In a way it’s like an automatic transmission in a car. Operating through gears, the engine can rev at a different rate than the wheels turn. Occasionally, shifting happens but the fluid coupling keeps both the engine and the wheels from absorbing any damaging shocks.

(Much) Bigger than Hollywood

Eddy Cue seems like a nice guy. I can’t say that for sure as I’ve never met him, but he seems to be amiable enough. Maybe it’s because he has a seat on Ferrari’s board of directors. Maybe it’s because he enjoys dancing.

Or maybe it’s because he’s in charge of the only real “division” at Apple. All the other senior managers have functional roles. Eddy has a bona-fide business unit called Services.

Services is Apple’s division of many things. It has the iTunes stores (Music, Video, Apps and iBooks). It has Software with consumer bundles like iWork and iLife and Pro tools like Aperture, Final Cut Pro and Logic Pro. It still has OS X as a product, though revenues are pretty low as updates are now free. It also includes Services with iCloud, Apple Music and Applecare.

These things are not iPhones or iPads but they are many and all together they form a modest little unit. I say modest because not much is said about it. When seen in contrast to the other Apple product lines, it’s hard to be impressed. In the graph below it’s the purple area.

Screen Shot 2015-08-25 at 5.56.19 PM

Apple does not help much. Occasionally  Apple offers updates on iTunes/Services using various (rarely the same) metrics. For example, in early August, Eddy Cue offered an update during an interview with USA Today on Apple Music relating how many users there were one month after the service started (11 million).  It was worth a few headlines.

However he also noted in passing that the App store did $1.7 billion in transactions during July. If you convert that to a yearly run-rate it comes out to about $20 billion/yr. Digging through previous announcements, the equivalent figure for 2014 was about $13.7 billion. Nice growth.

But is $20 billion of “transactions” of any significance?