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The figurative sales of iPhones and BlackBerries

The most interesting juxtaposition in market data happened this week.

Apple announced 9 million units of the iPhone 5s/c sold in their opening weekend while BlackBerry recognized 3.7 million smartphones sold in the three months ended August 31.

I will state these data points with a different emphasis:  while Apple explicitly reported, both in a press release and in an SEC filing, Sales of 9 million units, BlackBerry reported recognition of revenues on 3.7 million units.  At the same time BlackBerry also reported sales to end users of 5.9 million units.

So, did Apple sell 9 million iPhones in three days? What about units ordered and not delivered? Which of these units will show up in the company’s income statement? Conversely, did BlackBerry sell 3.7 million or did it sell 5.9 million smartphones in three months?

The answer is dependent on what constitutes a sale. I suggest re-reading the Sold and Shipped: A Brief Introduction post from last year. Understanding is complicated by many factors, not least of which could be intentional signaling by management. We may never come to a perfectly matched comparison of the two companies’ situations but our job as analysts is to see through the signals and obfuscating language and interpret a pattern. A pattern that extends over a time and helps us learn.

My observation is one of contrast. The juxtaposition this time is that Apple emphasized sold and not shipped while BlackBerry sold more units to end users than it recognized revenue. These signals reflect precisely the inverted fortunes of the two companies.

For BlackBerry the higher sold than shipped recognition was due to a product launch failure. Units which were shipped (and recognized as revenue) last quarter did not sell and the company is not only writing off the inventory but has drastically reduced its deliveries of new units in order to drain inventory. The company explains:

During the second quarter the company recognized hardware revenue on approximately 3.7 million BlackBerry smartphones. Most of the units recognized are BlackBerry 7 devices, in part because certain BlackBerry 10 devices that were shipped in the second quarter of fiscal 2014 will not be recognized until those devices are sold through to end customers. During the quarter, approximately 5.9 million BlackBerry smartphones were sold through to end customers, which included shipments made prior to the second quarter and which reduced the Company’s inventory in the channel.

The company is essentially saying that due to the unusual circumstances of a product launch failure, they will change how they account for their business. They don’t have the confidence that units shipped will actually sell and will not recognize them since they fear they will have to write some off. They are signaling: They are being far more conservative, not reporting shipments alone because those shipments could essentially be value free.

When seen as a pattern, the new figure on recognized revenue units needs to be shown relative to the history of recognized revenue units.  

An Interview by Eric Jackson: On Blogging, Apple And What's Next

My thanks to Eric Jackson for his thoughtful questions and post on Forbes.com. You can read full interview here but I repeat a few non-biographical questions and answers here for discussion:

An Interview With Horace Dediu: On Blogging, Apple And What’s Next

Q: Turning to Apple, where is it at right now as a company in this post-Steve Jobs period?

A: Still too early to tell. They seem to be cooking a lot of things and the great experiment of whether a company can be Jobsian without Jobs is still going on. I have been trying to put together a picture of how it operates. It’s hard because that’s their biggest secret. It’s also a picture that few people have ever seen, even those who worked there a long time. The glimpses so far are tantalizing but there is so much we don’t know and thus can’t assess how robust it is. One thing that is clear to me is that there is no absorption by mainstream observers of what makes Apple tick. It’s hiding in plain sight because what it is isn’t anything anyone can recognize. Case in point is the functional and integrated dimensions. It’s the largest functional organization outside the US Army and more integrated than Henry Ford’s production system. Just describing it sounds medieval and it’s so far outside convention that it’s not something reasonable people are willing to believe actually exists.

Q: Is Tim Cook the right CEO for the company at this time?

A: I hold the belief that he’s been CEO for much longer than it seems. Jobs was not a CEO in any traditional sense. He was head of product and culture and all-around micromanager. He left the operational side of the company to Cook who actually built it into a colossus. Think along the lines of the pairing of Howard Hughes and Frank William Gay. What people look for in Cook is the qualities that Jobs had but those qualities and duties are now dispersed among a large team. The question isn’t whether Cook can be the “Chief Magical Officer” but rather whether the functional team that’s around Cook can do the things Jobs used to do.

Look at it another way: I subscribe to the idea that any sufficiently large company is a system and needs to be analyzed using a lost art called “Systems Analysis”. This is a complete review of all parts and the way they inter-relate. However, since for most of its life Apple was personified as an individual, what came to pass for Apple analysis was actually the psychoanalysis of that individual. It makes for great journalism and best selling books. It’s also banal and almost certainly wrong. The proof is in the vastness of complexity and number of people involved. Engineers tend to think about constraints and the constraints on companies are innumerable.

Q: You’ve written extensively on the post-PC period, when will we come to the post-phone period – if ever?

M is for Mystery

I recently tweeted that any discussion related to wearable technology needs to begin with a description of the job it would be hired to do. Without a reason for building a product, you are building it simply because you can.

The reason a product deserves to exist is that it can do a job that needs doing and that few, if any others can also do it. This happens when the job is unstated and difficult to perceive. Put another way, the difficulty behind jobs-to-be-done based design is that jobs are never plainly evident. In contradiction to invention, where the problem being solved must be as clearly stated as its solution, value-creating innovation meets new and unarticulated needs. Even when created, the value is more subtly perceived, often only after prolonged use.

Which brings me to the M7. Apple chose to highlight a component (curious in itself) which it bills as a “motion coprocessor”. It claims to be measuring motion data via accelerometer, compass and gyroscope and processing the information in some way. By bundling the sensors and their management into one integrated chip battery consumption is reduced and these motion monitoring functions are performed more efficiently.

But what for? The examples given during the presentation for an iPhone with M7 don’t add up to a lot of benefit. An iPhone could be used as a fitness companion but it would not a very good one. Compared with, for example, a Nike FuelBand, an iPhone could not track your activity well. It’s often not moving, sitting on a desk or in a purse or pocket while you are doing exercise. It’s too big to take into a basketball game. It can’t “observe” your activity because it’s not worn during many activities and if it is worn it is in a position which does not inform much about what you’re doing. Phones are too big to be used as physical activity monitors.

Hence the question of what is the M7’s job to be done. As part of an iPhone, it does not seem to have one. Saving a bit of battery life is not a job, and certainly not one that needs to have billing in a media special event. The answer must be that the M7 was developed for some other, as yet unstated reason.

When the A series chips were created Apple leveraged the in-house design and cost reduction to make a wide range of products with more than 700 million examples built. Designing a chip needs a broad application domain.

Perhaps this is why Apple chose to describe the iPhone 5s as “forward-thinking”. The M7 and the Touch ID are like research projects whose actual value will be realized at some future time, in probably different contexts. The M series of chips may become Apple’s “low end” microprocessor as the A series climbs the trajectory into core computing tasks (read: phone, tablets, TV, laptops).

M might be the chip for the wearable segment, woven into a whole new fabric of uses and jobs to be done.

A new platform classification

When looking at the Race to a Billion data I noticed that some platform adoption ramps look quite different from others. It’s not just a matter of “slope” or rate of growth but a distinctly different shape.

If you look at the graph below you might see the difference yourself.

Screen Shot 2013-09-12 at 9-12-4.41.13 PM

First, note that the graph is logarithmic. A straight line on a log chart implies exponential growth (the y values are a constant to the power of the x value). However, none of the graphs show straight lines. None of the platforms follow exponential growth[1].

Second, we can eliminate linear or logarithmic functions. They simply do not fit.

That leaves: polynomial or power. It’s easy to test these alternatives for all the functions and it becomes clear that most of the platforms split into one of these two classes.

Notes:
  1. Except perhaps in the very early periods []

S is for Service

One of the enduring mysteries of the iPhone has been its lack of a portfolio. After six years it seems that Apple has finally acquiesced that there should be one, albeit currently limited to two items. The second enigma is related to the price, namely why does Apple ask so much for its phones? At an average sales price of $600 it’s a shocking premium to the average phone, and with a six year run, a shocking resistance to the corrosive effects of competition.

The obvious answer to why Apple asks so much is because it can. Anybody would if they could. That’s a poor question. So the right question should be: why does anybody pay this much? One could answer that few do and it’s not a mystery that some feel better paying more simply because they can. But those who pay Apple’s prices are, mainly, not consumers. They are operators. Exactly 270 of them.

So then let’s re-ask the question: Why do so many operators pay so much for Apple’s phones? We can’t answer that with the psychological slurs usually directed at the brand. Surely Operators aren’t competing in beauty contests or need to soothe their collective egos. The decisions operators make on whether to range a phone are driven by hard economic realities: ARPU, churn, network costs, depreciation, ROI, etc. Some clearly can’t make the iPhone fit their economic models and indeed about two thirds of them don’t. But the most prominent[1] do. DoCoMo, the largest in Japan just did after holding out for five years. Verizon held out for years, as did T-Mobile. China Mobile’s acceptance also seems imminent.

But that still leaves the question of why are those operators who do carry the iPhone willing to pay so much for it? I only assume that their decision process is likely to be rational. Mainly because we have a large enough sample but also because there is a lot of money at stake requiring quite a bit of internal consensus and vetting before committment. We have to conclude that operators place the orders because they obtain value from the iPhone even when it’s priced at a premium to the average alternative.

The question which follows then is how do they obtain value?

Notes:
  1. Arguably the most important []

C is for Cognitive Illusion

My assumption going into this, sixth iteration, of the iPhone was that we would see the expansion of the iPhone into two distinctly positioned products: a low-end C and a high-end S. The assumption was based on what what we saw with the iPad: the regular iPad and the mini iPad.

By using the iPad as a template, my exercise in August was to forecast what the pricing[1] might turn out to be for such a split-personality product.

I expected the 5C would replace the “low end” n-2 variant[2] and the 5S would continue as the core product. This is reflected in the original graph as devised in mid-August:

Screen Shot 2013-08-12 at 8-12-11.44.05 AM

The surprise was that the 5C was not “low end” in any way other than having a plastic case. It has a minor spec increase over the 5 but is otherwise a 5 feature set in a plastic skin. It also is priced as if it was the continuation of the 5, with a modest reduction in ASP.

In addition, the continuation of the 4S and 4 (in China at least) means that the old strategy continues more-or-less unchanged.

Knowing the line-up and pricing all that remains to understand is the positioning, or how the products are defined relative to each other.

This is where there might be a shift happening. Under the old model the n-1 variant was meant to be a modest volume contributor to the portfolio, being essentially a cognitive illusion which encouraged buyers to stick with iPhone n at the expense of competitors. However, the new n-1 product (the 5C) has a distinct positioning that makes it seem fresh and not a lesser, stale version of the flagship. It is designed to appeal as a legitimate upgrade for iPhone 4/4S users.  It is, in other words, not meant as an illusion, and not focusing attention on the flagship[3]. Rather, it is meant to be a genuine, core product.

As a result, I expect the mix of iPhones to be more evenly split between the C and S variants. I expect the C to even become the most popular version in the mid-term. My expectations are shown in the following graphs.

Notes:
  1. Revenue/unit to be more precise []
  2. Older by two generations as the iPad mini replaced the iPad 3 []
  3. It might still be an illusion for many but I’m suggesting that it won’t be for most. []

Who's next?

In February I asked Why doesn’t anybody copy Apple?

Put another way: Why is it that everyone wants to copy Apple’s products but nobody wants to copy being Apple?

Being Apple means, at least:

  • Insourcing all aspects of operations which affect the customer experience. Increasingly that has meant insourcing everything, a toxic idea to every MBA-trained professional since forever.
  • Organizing functionally and having no product level P/L responsibility. That also means removing almost all incentives for employees to climb ladders and thus prove their worth.
  • Developing products using integrated “heroic” efforts which shun  every best (or even adequate) process for product development.

I asked somewhat rhetorically because it’s an open question. Apple’s operating model and devotion to integration have been asymmetric to technology dogma for decades. To the casual (read: naïve) observer, pursuing the Apple way seemed also to be tied to one individual. You could not “be Apple” unless you were also Steve Jobs and there was only one of him.

But it seems I did not give enough credit to other observers.

Who's buying whom?

When a prosperous company buys a struggling company you have to wonder what they’re really buying.

Here’s how to think about it. A company is defined as the sum of three values: resources, processes and priorities (RPP). Everything of value can be classified into these three categories.

When one company buys another it’s the equivalent of one set of RPPs trying to engulf or swallow another set of RPPs. The simplest (naïve) interpretation is that an acquisition is the purchase of Resources in terms of customers, sales, profits, etc. It might be of assets like employees, intellectual properties, brand etc. I say this is naïve because Resources are the easiest to value because they can be measured and valuing only what can be measured while ignoring what can’t be measured is deeply mis-pricing.

So most people look for the “R” value or the value of Resources in an acquisition. It’s may be naïve but it is what markets typically value because it’s what they can price. But what happens when the “R” is flimsy or fleeting?

The answer has to be that it’s  the processes or even priorities which are valued by the acquirer.

The rear view mirror

In the Innovator’s Curse I reflected on the fact that a serial innovator cannot be efficiently financed or even rewarded for having figured out how to repeatably create. If anything, a serial innovator has to suffer a discount to peers who do not habitually (or ever) innovate. The innovation process is the proverbial goose that lays the golden eggs but is destined to perish due to the lack of faith in its existence.

So how can I back this up?

To start, this is partially evidenced in this graph of Apple’s price to earnings ratio since 2006 vs. the S&P 500’s. The S&P reflects the 500 largest companies in the US and is thus a proxy for the “average” company.

Screen Shot 2013-08-30 at 8-30-6.36.23 PM

[I added Apple's P/E excluding cash for additional perspective.]

The graph shows that during the period of time when iPhone and iPad changed computing and telecommunications, Apple was mostly held in contempt: the profits it was generating were not considered of “sufficient quality” relative to an average company. Since markets look forward, not backward (one assumes), the vote cast is decidedly that success cannot be repeated. Put another way: you can trust that a soft drink maker like Coca Cola (P/E of 19) or a utility like ConEd (P/E of 18) will continue in the manner we’ve seen them perform in the last year more than Apple (P/E of 12) will.

I can offer yet another way to consider this curse.

Steve Ballmer and The Innovator's Curse

The most common, almost universally accepted reason for company failure is “the stupid manager theory”. It’s the corollary to “the smart manager theory” which is used to describe almost all company successes. The only problem with this theory is that it is usually the same managers who run the company while it’s successful as when it’s not. Therefore for the theory to be valid then the smart manager must have turned stupid at a specific moment in time, and as most companies in an industry fail in unison, then the stupidity bit must have been flipped in more than one individual at the same time in some massive conspiracy to fail simultaneously.

So the failures of Microsoft to move beyond the rapidly evaporating Windows business model are attributed to the personal failings of its CEO. The calls for his head have been getting loud and rancorous for years. Taking this theory further, now that he’s leaving, the prosperity of the company depends entirely on the choice of a new (smarter) CEO.

It’s all nonsense of course.