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Apple has started the new year by disappointing investors with its first profit warning in 17 years. The company said that poor sales of its latest range of iPhones has helped to weaken its first financial quarter (September to December 2018). Apple now expects revenues of US$84 billion (£66 billion) with a gross profit margin of 38%, having initially expected between US$89 billion and US$93 billion. In the same quarter last year, Apple brought in US$88.3 billion on a gross margin of 42%.


This revision caused the company’s stock to drop 10% to its lowest level in 21 months. It is time to find culprits, and I will not be surprised to see headlines like, “Tim Cook is not up to the Job(s)” or: “Seven years after Jobs’ death, Apple is starting to rot.” We mustn’t believe them, however.


In other words, if Apple’s profit margin is 38%, Tim Cook would be able to add or detract 1.5% at most. The same is true in reverse of Steve Jobs’ achievements during his two periods at the helm (1976-85 and 1997-2011). We can’t attribute Apple’s once skyrocketing stock to his tenure because we don’t know what the alternative best-case scenario would have been.


In my view, Apple’s problems are primarily caused by external events. Cook explains in his recent letter that, with the exception of the services business – which includes the App Store and iTunes and accounted for 14% of revenues in financial 2018 – all the other Apple businesses will be “constrained”. This means Macs, iPads, iWatches but most importantly iPhones, which accounted for 62.7% of total Apple revenues in 2018, compared to 63.4% in 2016.


What is causing this constraint? The increasing competition from Chinese manufacturers such as Huawei and Xiaomi – but also from Google, LG and Samsung – has eroded the once dominant position of Apple in the smartphone market. Competition has been particularly damaging in emerging markets, which Cook is blaming on a strong dollar and weaker macroeconomic conditions – as opposed to any faulty Apple strategy in this part of the world.


With respect to markets where the iPhone has enjoyed a more dominant position – especially the US – Apple recognises that customers don’t replace their devices as often as they used to. A recent report by BayStreet Research estimated that, while the average user upgraded her iPhone every 24 months as recently as 2015, by the last quarter of 2018 this holding period had jumped to 36 months.

在iPhone占据主导地位的市场-尤其是美国-苹果认识到,消费者不会像过去那样经常更换自己的设备。BayStreet Research最近发布的一份报告估计,2015年消费者平均每24个月就升级一次iPhone,但到2018年最后一个季度,这一持有期已跃升至36个月。

This is due to fewer carrier subsidies, according to Apple – but also, in my opinion, to the fact that the new devices do not have much more to offer. I use an iPhone 7, which I bought in 2016, and I am honestly not inclined to spend US$1,000 for I-am-not-sure-which new features on a newer version. I already get much more from my current device than I need.

据苹果公司称,这是由于运营商补贴减少所致,但是,在我看来,新的设备并没有提供更多的东西。我使用的是我在2016年购买的iPhone 7,老实说,我不想花1000美元买新版本的新功能。我现在的设备已经比我需要的功能多了。

Apple’s problem


It worries me that Apple is a single-product company. Among its other revenues, iPad sales are one-tenth of iPhone sales eight years after tablets were launched. By comparison, Samsung mobile phone sales only represent 36.6% of its total revenues. Wearables by Apple are not taking off either – and the company is not monetising its platform business by selling customer data to the same extent as digital rivals such as Google, Amazon and Facebook.


Arturo Bris
Professor of Finance, IMD Business School

Arturo Bris