An interview with Chris Brennan for MacUser magazine UK

Chris Brennan asked a few important questions regarding potential saturation of the iPhone market.

Is the iPhone anywhere near saturation? Can Apple continue to shift iPhones in ever increasing numbers or is a sales plateau realistically on the horizon?

The market for mobile phones is approximately 5.5 billion connections, perhaps 5 billion users. The iPhone has approximately 300 million installed base. I consider a base of 1 billion users to be a minimum for continuing participation in this market long term. Licensed platforms will reach this in no more than two years. I don’t know what Apple’s ambitions are but if they don’t triple their base I don’t see a strong future for the company in mobile phones. In order to triple the base the company will need to sell substantially more than an additional 700 million iPhones. The retirement rate can be as high as 50% of installed base. Apple will need to sell at least 1 billion iPhones in the next few years. Seen another way, Apple has a market share of about 9% on a quarterly basis. This needs a lot of improvement. Chinese vendors are not standing still.

Can the Mac also continue to outperform the rest of the PC market for long?

The PC market is in decline. It will continue to decline as its disruption continues. The PC market will still exist 10 years from now but, similar to the mainframe market, it will be hard to notice. Apple is doing a fine job carving out a large portion of that market for itself but overall it’s an increasing portion of a decreasing pie. It would be better to track the share of profits captured or even share of value rather than units. The reason units were important 20 years ago was because platform dynamics determined whether a marginal platform could survive. Would a 5% share be enough to attract developers? That is no longer an interesting discussion. Applications for PCs are not an area of investment for any significant pool of capital. Development has moved almost entirely into mobile or web. Therefore, as the PC is now a commodity product, the best performers are those who can capture a larger margin. Those margins should be subsequently be invested in new platforms. PC vendors who neither capture margin, nor invest in new platforms are strategically insolvent.

Finally, this exponential growth of Apple products has to end some time soon doesn’t it? How many high-income buyers for expensive products can there be left for Apple to target?

Trying to calculate the limits to growth is futile. There are limits but they are not calculable and inaccurate estimates don’t offer any useful information.

In 1939 a total of 921 military aircraft were built in the United States. Five years later, in 1944, annual production was 96,318. A question could have been asked by an aviation analyst in 1939 about whether the American aircraft industry could grow. Aircraft, especially multi-engined ones used by the military were _extremely_ expensive. The reason an industry grew exponentially making extraordinarily expensive products was not because of organic demand but because the primary buyers engaged in a cataclysmic global war. In other words, there was a will to buy and hence there came a way to build. Therefore the answer to the question of sustainable growth comes not from an analysis of demand but from an analysis of the consequences of not growing. Not growing would have meant the end of many nation states.

Your question was framed by an implied market categorization: that buyers are either high-income or, presumably, low-income. This is a false dichotomy. Buyers are either needful of a job to be done or not. If the job is important enough, money will be found to hire a product. Sellers of products will also find ways to meet the demand through lower prices and increased capacity. Every product Apple makes used to be out of the reach of all consumers. Whether computers (portable or not), music players and professional grade software, voice recognizing personal assistant cellular phones and tablets are all luxuries or necessities is only a question of timing.