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On the trajectory of successful companies

Samsung Electronics warned Tuesday that its third-quarter earnings would fall below market expectations. It did not cite a decrease in shipments but an increase in marketing expenses coupled with an unfavorable mix (i.e. more low-end units and fewer high-end units).

The headlines reporting the news emphasized the 60% forecast drop in operating income but the company also provided sales figures. Adjusting for exchange rates, the forecast revenues are shown in the following diagram:

 

Screen Shot 2014-10-07 at 8.51.05 AM

Note that I also included Apple’s revenue history and forecast. Samsung’s revenues are shown on the right and Apple’s on the left using the same scale (each horizontal gridline represents $10 billion/quarter.

The explicit cause for the drop is a decline in prices and “increased competition”.[1] However a few more questions need to be answered regarding long-term success in the markets Samsung competes in.

Namely:

  • The absence of a software platform fully within its control
  • The absence of control over an ecosystem of content and apps
  • The absence of services
  • The lack of integration of software, services and hardware
  • The absence of differentiation vis-a-vis other vendors
  • The indefensibility of its low end offerings from low end disruptors
  • The pattern of commoditization in all its markets

Samsung is a very big company but many very big companies came to become small companies. They all followed similar roads.

Notes:
  1. Though one can’t be sure when there was ever decreased competition in its markets. []

Apparel is next

If software can be injected into an industry’s product it will bend to the will of the software writers.

This theory expands on Marc Andreessen’s observation that “software is eating the world”. The evidence is that software, coupled with microprocessors, sensors, batteries and networking becomes applicable to an increasingly larger set of problems to be solved[1]. Software has “eaten” large portions of entertainment (e.g. Pixar, iTunes, video games), telecommunications (iPhone, Android, Messaging), various professions including journalism, management and law, and is entering transportation, energy and health care and poised over banking, finance and government.

As entry happens, asymmetries are enabled and disruption follows. This is the bending to the will of the writers–who tend not to be incumbents. The incumbents can’t embrace the changes in business models enabled by software without destroying their core businesses and thus, invariably, they disappear.

The pattern is easily observed but the speed and timing of it is difficult to predict and hence investment success is not certain.[2] There are many entrants who try and few succeed and there are many incumbents who will survive longer than a prophet can stay hungry.

Nevertheless, this process of software-induced turnover in wealth–and, incidentally, vast, additional wealth creation–is inevitable.

But can we predict anything other than timing? For example, can we predict the next industry to succumb to this force?

Notes:
  1. Or, put another way, is eligible to be hired to perform an increasingly large set of jobs []
  2. Which, ironically, means that the jobs of venture capitalists are still safe. At least until the theory develops to the point where it can predict with more accuracy winners and losers. []

Interview With Horace Dediu: What To Expect When Apple’s Expecting

My thanks to Eric Jackson for his thought-out questions on Apple. As published in Forbes, here is his Interview With Horace Dediu: What To Expect When Apples Expecting.

A few excerpts:

Q: Do you expect to see a sapphire cover on the new iPhone(s)? Is that material significant?

I expect Sapphire will become a signature feature across many products. I don’t know if they will have capacity to deploy on iPhone this year but on a watch it’s essential. Here’s a clue: if the screen has any curvature, especially around edges, it needs to be sapphire as glass can’t take strain in that shape. The scope of the plant they are building with GT implies that they will have massive volume potential with at least one major iPhone model using the material. It’s a significant material because it allows design freedom in new directions, especially curved (concave) touch surfaces that retain a jewel-like feel. This has Jony Ive all over it.

Q: Is it fair to conclude now based on the 5C and 5S that Apple will never launch a “cheap iPhone”?

Oscar Wilde said a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. When I see the word “cheap” I never know if it refers to price or value. And even when we talk about price, an iPhone is cheaper than buying all the things it replaces so it’s always been a low end disruptor in my mind. (I saw a tweet with an image of a Radio Shack ad from the 1980s and every single item available on that page is now a part of the iPhone. It would have cost thousands to buy all those things back then–and dollars were worth a lot more.) Furthermore, I think Apple holds a black belt in pricing. They seem to define their position in the market by anchoring certain prices and “owning” them. Given all that I would say that Apple is not going to move their price points much. They will expand the portfolio and offer some iPhones at $300 but they will be older models. The average selling price (ASP) I expect to remain constant on a year-long average.

Q: In the past, Apple critics were quick to dismiss the new iPad and 5C iPhone as failures upon their introduction.  You never judge. You just report the facts and data.  That said, is there anything about past new Apple products launches that we should look at as a predictor of how a new iWatch might be received by customers?

When the iPad was imminent the great debate was over whether it would run iOS or OS X. Many imagined a touch-based Mac rather than the “big screen iPod touch”. It was a tough call and one which Microsoft could not and still does not make. Therefore, the interesting question for me with respect to iWatch is: What OS it will run? I will be shocked to the core if it does not run iOS. It is my opinion that making iOS work on it is the entire reason Apple is sweating this segment. They are in it because they are trying to make a platform product with a novel user experience and all the power of an ecosystem run on a wrist. It’s as big a problem as getting a phone-sized device to run a touch UI was in 2007. That is the crucial contribution that Apple is making to this next generation of computing. Now you might ask what users are asking for in this segment. The answer is nothing. Nobody is asking for this. As nobody asked for the iPhone (or the Mac or the iPad). It’s a new computer form factor and how it will be used will be determined by the apps written for it. But it will work and be magical out of the box in version 1. This is in contrast to the single purpose or accessory model of wearables we see to date.

Q: As a student of disruption, where is Apple most vulnerable to being disrupted?

Apple is a new market disruptor but much of what is put forward as a threat to it is low-end disruption. I think Apple knows enough about how that happens that it can manage its way around it. The strategy they employ is one of attrition. If you wait long enough a low-end threat tends to wear itself out as it starves of profit and is constantly gnawed-at by alternatives. (You see, if the disruptor cannot manage a profit then they cannot climb up the trajectory to get on top of the incumbent. Being profitable is a key requirement for successful disruption in the long term.) The attrition strategy works as long as you have the fortitude to hold out and the deep pockets to keep improving your product as alternatives flame out. It is my belief that Jobs made sure that thinking is inculcated in the company. So if not low-end is the company vulnerable to new-market disruptors? This is more subtle and the threat here is what Google/FaceBook/Amazon and the other ecosystems are all about. It’s creating new usage models and shifting where consumers place brand value. I think this is more what keeps Apple’s management awake at night. They are not standing still however. iTunes and Software and Services (now with Beats on board) is the way they are staying on top of that threat.

Lots more here.

Beleaguered

Amazon’s recent disputes with publishers (Hachette and Disney) shows a degree of market power that is closer to monopsony than to monopoly but this power is nevertheless real. It may not not be something that requires intervention, regulation or even scrutiny but market power is evident in both how companies operate and in how they are valued.

If you look at the following graph, it’s easy to spot those with “monopoly” power. The graph shows a short history of revenues/operating income and P/E ratios. Modest or no growth in earnings coupled with extraordinary high P/E ratios indicate that the market understands the business is not threatened by competition.

Screen Shot 2014-08-14 at 8-14-1.40.47 PM

On Capital Allocation

One of the paradoxes of the “post-industrial” era is the aversion to application of capital to growth opportunities. Generally speaking, capital has become trapped in bank accounts as opposed to equipment which could be used to produce value. This aversion is rooted in many dysfunctions, chief among them being the misunderstanding of the purpose of the firm.

But there are exceptions. Illustrated below are the patterns of spending in property plant and equipment (capital expenditures) by companies that still recognize that there are opportunities to be obtained by investment in the means of production.

Screen Shot 2014-08-13 at 11.36.03 AM

Open always wins

ABI Research estimates that AOSP (or forked Android) is the fastest growing mobile operating system with a total share of units shipped of about 20%. This is not surprising considering that most Chinese vendors don’t include standard Android into their products. Indeed the current leader in China, Xiaomi has its own take on Android and includes a unique UI and set of services. This is also not a new pattern, Amazon’s fork of Android has been in development for many years and powers the second most used tablet in the US.

If one looks at the volumes of smartphones shipped by vendor, the most rapidly growing (Huawei, Lenovo, Xiaomi, ZTE, Coolpad and “others”) are likely to be using forked versions of Android.

Screen Shot 2014-08-07 at 7.06.09 PM

The reasons for this are many: a reluctance to deal with Google’s obligations,  Microsoft’s IP licensing costs[1] , potential litigation, politics (including bans on Google services in certain markets), etc. But the most likely reason is flexibility. Vendors competing on price and localization are looking to move quickly against each other and can’t wait for blessings from above. Belonging to some “Alliance” and all that it entails is just too much to ask for companies that are, so to say, delicate.

Notes:
  1. which even Samsung seems to be eschewing []

Twenty Questions from Catalin Stelian Andrei

Catalin Stelian Andrei, Editor of The Day, INTERNET PROTV asked me twenty questions:

1. What phone do you have in your pocket right now? Why that model?

I carry the iPhone 5. The last iPhone I bought was an iPhone 5C which I gave to a family member.

2. Apple is going to launch, form all we know, an iPhone with a bigger screen, long after their market rivals. Is Apple one step behind, being forced to take this road in the fight with Android and Windows Phone devices? Because many smartphone users were hoping that an big screen iPhone, a redesigned model, will be lauched long time ago, and that didn’t happen.

Making bigger phones is easier than making smaller phones. First because miniaturization has always been the most difficult engineering challenge, and second, because a smaller phone has a smaller battery making efficiency much more important. The larger the phone, the simpler it is. The third reason smaller is more valuable is that it’s easier to carry and use. The largest phones cannot be put in pockets and cannot be used with one hand. In the history of consumer, electronics size reduction has been the most consistent measure of performance, and the most rewarding. Usually the most exceptional reductions in dimensions create the highest price and profit bands. There have been niches for larger portable devices but they are consistently a small part of the overall market. If Apple were to introduce a larger device I hope they will be able to solve usability problems and make the category attractive to a larger audience.

3. What do you expect from the new iPhone 6?

I expect it to run the latest version of iOS and, with the new apps developers will ship, that should make the most impact in people’s lives. I imagine health maintenance and home automation will become valuable new franchises. Of course iOS 8 will also run on older iPhones, but I suspect the newest iPhone will somehow run the new software better and have smoother integration with services.

4. What’s the “not to do” lesson that Apple needs to learn for the now iPhone from it’s own past experience or their competitors?

The biggest challenge is to move rapidly with scale. The company has managed to grow from zero phones a year to hundreds of millions. That’s great but it’s still frustrating to wait one year for major improvements. The “cycle time” of innovation for Apple remains one year. I wish it could be faster but perhaps this is also too fast for some. In some services like maps and iCloud and iWork, which are independent of hardware (mostly,) speed is of the essence.

5. The iPhone is the most expensive smartphone on the market right now. In Romania, it certainly is. But where does Apple gains it’s most money from, selling products to users or selling services, like iTunes, App Store? And having that in mind, what will be their next step: better – breakthrough products or bigger, more complete services?

The answer to where a company “gets its profits” is best answered by asking where a buyer “gets his value” from the product. For instance you might answer the question of where a car company gets its value by saying that it’s from making people be in more than one place in a day. So the “differentiation” of a car is in answering the question slightly differently. If it’s hard to see a difference to this answer between cars then it’s hard for any one company to make a profit. For a company like Apple, we need to ask what its users value about the experience and why they are willing to pay for that. My hypothesis is that the brand’s value is in making life a little bit easier. That’s what Apple competes on. Of course, some people are not willing to pay to have an easier life and some even want to make their lives more complicated so Apple’s proposal to make life easier, for a price, is not accepted by everybody—which is ok by them. But for many, paying for comfort, productivity and ease of mind is worth quite a bit. The reason Apple is able to gain a premium over the competition is that this value proposal (of paying for simplification) is either weak or non-existent for competitors. Indeed, many competitors compete on the basis of making life more complicated.

6. What does innovation means for Apple right now? What are their options for assuring a next decade of success? A new Steve Jobs person or a Steve Jobs tipe of group thinking. How hard is that to achieve?

Innovation is meaningful invention—bringing useful creations to a large number of people who then make use of that creation. The interesting aspect of making money from innovation is that it’s a rare phenomenon, requiring many disciplines to work together. It’s like a big movie that somehow works and becomes widely popular but costs little to make. Many movies are made, few are successful and very few of those which are successful are built at low cost. What we know about technology innovation is that it’s a combination that comes together under strong leadership but that leadership alone is not sufficient. The myth of Steve Jobs is that he was both necessary and sufficient to success. The truth is that he was necessary but not sufficient. To make successful innovations requires strong leadership and teamwork and a process of incentives and passion that is hard to create a formula for. How this works at Apple is its biggest secret.

7. Who are the key Apple employees right now? Do they need another Jobs or do they already have him?

All Apple employees are key. I would say that’s the magic formula. There is no chief magical officer (and there never was.)

8. What will be the next best thing for Apple? […]

I don’t know. It’s probably not knowable.

Questions for Eddy Cue and Craig Federighi

The Re/Code conference begins this week, and Apple executives Eddy Cue and Craig Federighi will be answering questions from Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg.

Here are some questions I hope they ask:

For Eddy Cue:

  1. Why is there no app store for Apple TV? Even though the product is running essentially the same hardware and software as the iPhone and iPad and iPod touch and even though it connects to the iTunes stores, there is no option for developers to build apps for it or for consumers to use their TVs to run iOS apps. I might add that it’s been seven years since the platform launched and that’s a long time to wait.
  2. As Amazon has been granted a monopoly on the distribution of ebooks by the US federal government, why not compete by selling ebooks as apps? Apps were used as ebook containers well before the iBookstore launched and there were tens of thousands of “book apps”. Why not encourage authors and publishers to build apps by offering tools which make it easy to do so? I might add that if you do this for authors, why not do it for musicians and video producers? Why have separate stores for different media when they are all just content?
  3. YouTube is becoming the TV of choice for millions. Before it becomes that choice for billions, what are you doing to encourage user-generated video content distribution through your ecosystem?
  4. Apple’s Services revenues are growing remarkably quickly. The number of users is over 800 million. Do you see an opportunity for services to become a more independent business at Apple? In other words, why not bring iTunes to Android?

For Craig Federighi:

  1. Marc Andreessen uses the phrase “Software is Eating the World” to describe the disruption that software-enabled businesses are having on those who don’t depend on software. You are the head of software at Apple; what’s on your plate? In other words, what do you see the opportunity for software at Apple beyond enabling device sales? I might add that although you are leading Software Engineering at Apple, Software and Services are part of Eddy’s organization. Does this separation make sense?
  2. It’s likely that iOS will be used by more people than Windows in the near future. What do you see as the obstacles to iOS replacing Windows for what most business users use daily?
  3. If you believe that iOS can replace Windows (at least in some tasks), do you think the iPad will ever replace the Mac?

This was originally posted on LinkedIn on May 28th.

Think local, act global

Three years ago Apple’s Greater China Q1 sales were $2.22 billion or 9% of total. This year they were $9.29 billion[1] or 20% of total. Over this time frame the growth in China was about 320%. The second fastest growing reporting segment was Japan with growth of 187%. Europe was third with 70% and Americas fourth with 53.5%. Rest of Asia/Pacific had the smallest increase of only 4.1%.

A graph showing both the absolute and relative sales levels for the reporting regions is shown below.

Screen Shot 2014-05-19 at 5-19-11.35.17 AM

As overall sales have increased significantly, the revenues from the Americas and Retail combined (as most stores are in the US)[2] went from 51% in Q1 2011 to  42% in Q1 2014. The 11 point increase in share for China can be thus seen as mostly at the expense of the US. As Americas did not decline more appropriate statement would be that China captured much of the growth of the last three years.

Note that I also included Google’s revenue split[3] in the graph above. This is partly to calibrate Apple’s mix and to understand if the expansion outside the US is mirrored by other companies.

Google, in particular, is largely absent from the Chinese market and the only regional detail we have for their revenues is the US, UK and Other. That leaves an analysis of the dependency of each company on the US market.

Google’s US revenue percentage did drop from 47% to 43% but it’s worth noting that not only is the drop slower than Apple’s, the overall dependency of Google on the US for revenues is higher than Apple’s.

A surprising observation as Apple’s concentration of users, measured as market share for various products, is likely to be higher in the US than Google’s distribution of users.

Put another way, Google is broadly popular world-wide (except for search in China, Korea and Russia) but its customers and hence profitability are highly concentrated.

Notes:
  1. Including China retail, revenues reached “almost $10 billion” []
  2. 60% of all Apple stores are in the US []
  3. Excludes discontinued operations, namely Motorola []

Measuring Not Getting the Cloud

This is what “Not getting the Cloud” looks like:

Screen Shot 2014-05-09 at 5-9-3.30.03 PM

Screen Shot 2014-05-09 at 5-9-4.04.33 PM

 

“Not getting the cloud” means that in the last 12 months Apple obtained:

  • 800 million iTunes users and
  • an estimated 450 million iCloud users spending
  • $3 billion/yr for end-user services plus
  • $4.7 billion/yr for licensing and other income which includes
  • more than $1 billion/yr paid by Google for traffic through Apple devices and
  • $13 billion/yr in app transactions of which
  • $9 billion/yr was paid to developers and
  • $3.9 billion/yr was retained as operating budget and profit for the App Store. In addition,
  • $2.7 billion/yr in music download sales and
  • more than $1 billion/yr in Apple TV (aka Apple’s Kindle) and video sales and
  • $1 billion/yr in eBooks sold

In summary, iTunes, Software and Services has been growing between 30% and 40% for four years and is on its way to $30 billion/yr in transactions and sales for 2014.

This is what can be deduced from a reading of Apple’s financial statements of operations. If there are comparable details for companies which do get the cloud, I’ll be happy to tally the comparison so we can calibrate this failure.