The Great Apple Expectations Reset

Apple is in the midst of its weakest growth period in 15 years. Despite deteriorating financial trends, Apple's stock has held up remarkably well in 2016. There are a number of clues that suggest we are in the latter stages of a major Apple expectations reset on Wall Street. The implications are significant not just for AAPL, but also for the amount of leeway given to Tim Cook and Luca Maestri over the next two to three years. 

AAPL: The Growth Stock

On May 22nd, 2015, Apple's prospects were running high. AAPL shares had just closed at an all-time high of $132.54, giving the company a $769 billion market cap. Excluding the cash and cash equivalents on the balance sheet, Apple's enterprise value was $619 billion. Three weeks earlier, Apple had reported record 2Q15 earnings. The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus drove strong 40% year-over-year growth in iPhone unit sales. In addition, Apple had just experienced its largest product category launch ever with Apple Watch. Expectations were that the Watch would quickly become a key Apple revenue driver. 

While a few analysts voiced concerns about Apple's dependency on the iPhone for revenue and profits, there were others projecting Apple would become the first trillion dollar market cap company. Apple financial expectations were quite high as many analysts and investors were modeling 20%+ EPS growth in 2016 and 2017. Apple was the largest growth stock on Wall Street. 

The Apple Reset

Over the subsequent three months following AAPL's record-high close in May 2015, AAPL shares declined 20%. The Chinese stock market had crashed, and fears began to grow that there could be a spillover effect on iPhone demand. Wall Street eventually began to doubt whether or not Apple would be able to maintain its revenue and earnings growth rates given China's slowing economy.

In October 2015, only a few weeks after the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus launch, reports surfaced that the new iPhones were not selling as strongly as expected. While the iPhone business had contained so much promise just a few months earlier, things were beginning to look much more fragile. Analysts began to cut their iPhone sales estimates on growing fear that the iPhone business was headed into a rough patch. 

Apple's 1Q16 earnings report back in January confirmed that fear. Apple was able to grow iPhone sales by a mere 311,000 units year-over-year, and management's 2Q16 guidance implied Apple would report its first year-over-year decline in iPhone sales. Meanwhile, Apple Watch sales were not living up to Wall Street's lofty expectations.

In the days following Apple's miserable 2Q16 earnings report this past April, expectations took another step down, resulting in AAPL shares bottoming at $90.34 on May 12th, 2016. During the twelve-month span ranging from May 2015 to May 2016, AAPL shares had declined by 32%, wiping out $271 billion of market cap. Excluding cash and cash equivalents, Apple's enterprise value had declined by $274 billion. Apple had just gone through a year-long expectations reset concluding with Apple no longer being considered a growth stock.

The Expectations Game

Apple's reset over the past year has been guided by Wall Street's expectations game. Analysts and investors make projections about a company's future stream of cash flows and earnings. These expectations help explain how one company's stock can perform poorly the day after reporting strong earnings while another company's stock can outperform the market after posting a weak earnings report. 

Apple suffered from two primary problems pertaining to the expectations game. Management never had a cohesive narrative for how investors and analysts should judge Apple's financial success. In addition, there was evidence that Apple management was caught off guard by slowing iPhone 6s and 6s Plus sales, which made it difficult to communicate clarity with top Apple shareholders and analysts.

Establishing a Narrative. A narrative provides a management team an avenue to explain its business to analysts and investors. Companies can use everything from SEC filings to the prepared remarks found in the beginning of a quarterly earnings conference call to help establish and then nurture a narrative. The strongest Wall Street narratives are those that are easiest to explain and understand. Examples of well-received narratives include Facebook owning the most attractive mobile properties for advertisers or Amazon forgoing near-term profits in order to invest in long-term investments and bets. For each narrative, investors monitor certain financial metrics in order to judge how a management team is performing in comparison to benchmarks. 

When it came to Apple, the company has never had a functioning narrative on Wall Street. Instead, the only way investors have come to judge Apple's success has been to look at whatever hardware product was the top seller at any given moment. In the early 2000s, it was the Mac and iPod. Eventually, the focus turned to the iPhone, and soon, iPad. Once the iPad ran into sales trouble, the iPhone then became the center of attention. Nothing else mattered but iPhone unit sales growth. This was a recipe for disaster considering how Apple's business model is based on profit share, not market share. Once iPhone unit sales growth slowed, the closest thing Apple had to a Wall Street narrative fell apart. 

Managing Financial Expectations. Companies have additional tools at their disposal to help guide investor's near-term expectations. Providing financial guidance is one of the more common methods used to establish an adequate framework for expectations. Management teams can issue estimate ranges for what they think is achievable in terms of revenue, income, or metrics such as monthly users. Another option that is less talked about, but at times far more effective, is for management teams to keep open communication channels with top shareholders and financial analysts.  

Even though Tim Cook and Luca Maestri have been providing quarterly guidance as well as communicating with top shareholders, the two were not able to adequately manage financial expectations surrounding the iPhone business. There is evidence that even Apple management themselves were caught off guard by slowing iPhone sales and that this contributed to the lack of proper messaging and explanation. 

AAPL: The Value Stock

After a year-long expectations reset that saw a 30% drop in Apple's stock price, there is evidence that AAPL is now considered a value stock on Wall Street. This new distinction is likely playing a big role in Apple's resilient stock price in the face of deteriorating financial trends. As AAPL shares declined over the past year, Apple's shareholder base underwent significant changes. Investors focused on earnings growth sold their shares to investors primarily focused on value. This shareholder rotation has led to the average Apple investor now holding very different opinions about Apple and how to judge financial success.

In what will likely end up serving as a symbol of Apple's newly appointed value stock distinction, Todd Combs and Ted Weschler of Berkshire Hathaway bought a $1 billion stake in Apple in 1Q16. To have such value-oriented investors take a stake in Apple is quite telling. 


There are three key implications related to AAPL now being considered a value stock. 

Different Expectations. Given shareholder rotation, Apple now faces different expectations when it comes to its financial performance. Wall Street has become much more accepting of what was once unimaginable only a few months ago, iPhone sales declines. This change in expectations will play a role in Apple's earnings release next week as the company is expected to report the weakest quarter for iPhone sales performance since the product launched in 2007. (My complete Apple 3Q16 earnings preview is available here.)

Management Flexibility. Given the amount of shareholder rotation and reduced expectations surrounding growth, Tim Cook and Luca Maestri have been given additional time by Wall Street to position Apple for a post-iPhone era. It remains in Apple's best interest to come up with a long-term narrative that includes some aspect of hardware but is not based on unit sales

Capital Management. Apple's capital management strategy will play an increasingly important role for value-oriented investors. Apple's announcements surrounding annual dividend increases and share buyback authorization changes will likely garner much more interest. 

The Big Picture

Apple's stock has hit rough stretches in the past. However, this most recent drop and the resulting expectations reset stands out from the rest. For the first time, Wall Street is dealing with an Apple with declining revenue. In the past, Apple revenue declines were only discussed as worst-case scenarios. The reality of what is taking place in the iPhone business has likely shaken the AAPL investor base much more than any other event over the past 15 years.

While it may seem like this kind of expectations reset should have resulted in more than a 30% drop in Apple's stock price over the past year, I suspect Apple's share buyback program will provide some much-needed answers. Management has been buying back approximately $30 billion of AAPL shares per year. This is an unprecedented amount of buyback. Since 2012, Apple has bought back 16% of its shares outstanding. These were shares formerly held by investors with expectations of Apple as a growth stock. Accordingly, Apple's buyback program played a role in rotating Apple's shareholder base by removing shares that would have otherwise been sold to other investors in the marketplace. 

One sign that a company's expectations have truly been reset is that company's stock price increases on negative news. This serves as an indicator that the investor base has likely been flushed out and expectations have been reset. We will be able to test this theory when Apple releases its 3Q16 earnings report. 

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Apple's Plan to Own the Entire Music Industry

Apple's ambition in music continues to be misunderstood. Most of the focus remains on the battle between Apple Music and Spotify for paid music streaming subscribers. However, the much more interesting development relates to Apple's desire to grab music mind share. Apple is aiming to leverage its strong balance sheet to control the music narrative, and in the process, remove all of the oxygen from the music streaming industry. 

Music Is in Apple's DNA

Music not only served as inspiration for the iPod, but also justified Apple's first major foray beyond hardware and software. Apple got into the messy business of distributing and selling digital music because it believed hardware and software expertise gave the company advantages that other companies lacked. Apple saw the increasing amount of chaos in the music industry as an opportunity to package and sell a superior customer experience. The one thing that Apple was missing: access to songs. 

To make the case that Apple should have access to music catalogs, Steve Jobs explained to the big five record labels, BMG, EMI, Sony, Universal, and Warner, how Apple would control the entire music experience. Everything from running the store that would sell the songs all the way to selling the device used to listen to those songs would go through Apple. The goal was to impress the labels and have them see how no one was better positioned than Apple to offer a superior customer experience. Since the iTunes store was initially sold as being available only on a Mac, if things turned out negatively for the labels, the Mac's low market share meant the mistake would be contained.

The sales pitch worked, and the world quickly embraced Apple's model of buying single songs for $0.99. A million tracks were downloaded in the first six days. Over the next few years, the iTunes store became the go-to place to buy music, and more importantly, it grabbed a significant amount of music mindshare. Eventually, the first thing that came to mind when talking about music was either iTunes or iPod. Apple had captured the music industry. 

The Beats Acquisition

The iTunes juggernaut remained relatively unscathed for more than a decade. During this time, Apple held nearly complete control over the changing music landscape. However, behind the shiny facade, cracks were appearing. Start-ups focused on music streaming were gaining traction. By early 2014, Spotify had amassed 55M users, Pandora was flying high on Wall Street, and YouTube was the most popular destination for listening to free music. While the iTunes cash cow of paid song downloads was still growing, it was clear that change was in the air. For the first time in years, Apple wasn't the one selling that change.  

Acquiring Beats in 2014 for $3 billion, nearly five times more than it spent on its previous most expensive acquisition, was an admission from Apple that iTunes was in trouble. While management never officially positioned the acquisition as such, the fact that Beats co-founder Jimmy Iovine was selling a "solution" to Apple was a clear giveaway that something was indeed broken and required a solution in the first place. 

Strategy to Own the Music Industry

Following the Beats acquisition, I see Apple striving to take back the music narrative with the goal of eventually owning the entire music industry. There are four distinct steps to Apple's strategy. 

  1. Pivot into paid music streaming.
  2. Leverage a strong balance sheet to control the music narrative.
  3. Remove oxygen from the music streaming industry by grabbing revenue share.
  4. Create an environment for independent artist sustainability.

Although each step becomes progressively more difficult, ultimately, the four are interrelated.  

Step 1: Pivot into paid music streaming. Apple's first step in owning the music industry is the most straightforward: work with music rights holders to successfully pivot from paid downloads to paid music streaming. The paid music streaming industry is still in its infancy with approximately 90 million people paying for some kind of music streaming. This number will undoubtedly rise over the coming years. In 2015, revenue from paid music streaming outpaced revenue from paid downloads in the U.S. for the first time. It's clear Apple had no other choice but to make the jump into streaming. 

Apple's entrance into paid music streaming last year will be remembered as a mixed bag. For users with iTunes playlists, Apple Music was hit or mess as Apple oversold its ability to seamlessly combine streaming with legacy iTunes. However, for mainstream users living firmly in streaming, Apple Music was much better received. Last month at WWDC, Apple unveiled an improved Apple Music that addresses some of the larger friction points that came to light over the past year. 

When judging Apple's performance in paid music streaming, the primary metric to monitor has been the number of paid subscribers. Accordingly, much attention has been given to the feud between Apple and Spotify, the current leader in paid music streaming. With more than 30 million subscribers, Spotify has nearly twice the number of paid subscribers as Apple Music with their 15 million. However, Apple Music has shown much promise as it took less than a year to reach that 15 million paid subscriber benchmark. It took Spotify six years to reach the same number of paid subscribers.

Despite a few missteps, Apple has successfully accomplished the first step in its mission to eventually own the entire music industry. In just a year, the company has the second most popular paid music streaming product in the world with Apple Music. 

As seen in Exhibit 1, Apple Music's subscriber growth trajectory has ramped much faster than Spotify's. Apple was able to take advantage of its vibrant mobile ecosystem, a broad geographic reach, and a much more mature music streaming market. 

Exhibit 1: Apple Music vs. Spotify Paid Subscribers

Looking at recent subscriber trends, things become trickier to analyze. There is evidence that Spotify is moving the goalposts as its paid subscriber count is becoming diluted due to increased use of price discounts and promotions. These offers are inflating Spotify's paid subscriber numbers. Since Spotify has nearly 70M subscribers on its free tier, the company is likely trying to capitalize on this large user base by dangling discounts and promotions to entice upgrades. Apple Music has not seen this same level of price promotion. This means that the Apple versus Spotify battle will need to be judged along new metrics in the coming months. 

In terms of other paid music streaming competitors, the industry remains disjointed. Riding on the back of big exclusives, Jay Z's Tidal has positioned itself as the third-largest paid streaming service with more than four million subscribers. Deezer, Rhapsody, and Pandora are close behind in terms of the number of paid subscribers. Meanwhile, SoundCloud's recent move into paid music streaming has not caused much of a stir.

Step 2: Leverage a strong balance sheet to control the music narrative. Apple's next step to own the music industry is to leverage its strong balance sheet in order to better position itself against the largest streaming players. Apple will use a portion of its $234 billion of cash to accomplish three things:

  • Obtain music exclusives. Apple is betting big on music exclusives. By working closely with top music artists, Apple believes exclusives won't just help sell Apple Music subscriptions, but also go a long way in placing Apple Music in the center of the music discussion. Exclusives help drive buzz and press. As an example of how powerful exclusives can be, most of Tidal's 4.2M subscribers are a result of album exclusives from Beyoncé, Kayne West, and Rihanna. Meanwhile, Apple has seen exclusives from Drake, Future, and Chance the Rapper. 
  • Create original content. Instead of focusing just on exclusive songs and albums, Apple has shown a desire to work with labels and music artists to produce other forms of original content including feature-length movies (the Taylor Swift concert documentary), Beats 1 programming, and even scripted television series (Dr. Dre's "Vital Signs"). All of this exclusive content demonstrates how "winning" in the music industry is no longer just about having access to music. Music and video are becoming intertwined. 
  • Fund artists. Apple is increasingly looking and acting like a record label these days. While the company isn't exactly forthcoming in disclosing the extent of its involvement, we know Apple is bankrolling a number of artists when it comes to marketing expenses. Apple has produced a handful of music videos for Drake, M.I.A., The Weeknd, and Eminem. 

Apple's goal with these three items is to place Apple Music in the center of the music discussion. If something big happens in the music scene, Apple wants it to occur within Apple Music. The key ingredients to accomplishing this step include lots of cash and the right kind of industry relationships. The Drake exclusive reportedly cost $19 million. It's clear this is where the battle is being fought for subscribers in music streaming. Spotify recently hired Troy Carter as global head of creator services and getting exclusives is a top priority. 

Step 3: Remove oxygen from the music streaming industry by grabbing revenue share. With a successful pivot into paid music streaming, and now a focus on getting exclusives and building music relationships, Apple's next step toward owning the music industry is coming into focus. Apple will look to gain music streaming revenue share in order to form stronger relationships with music rights owners. In the process, Apple hopes to remove much of the oxygen in the streaming space.

The ultimate goal is to create a feedback loop in the music industry. If Apple Music is the top revenue source, the belief is this would lead to stronger relationships with music rights holders. In turn, stronger relationships would lead to a better Apple Music service with more exclusive content and additional access to artists. The better content will then drive additional paying subscribers and a larger piece of industry revenue share. Completing the loop, the higher revenue share will give music rights holders an even greater incentive to work with Apple. It was this goal to get close with music rights owners by going after industry revenue share that led Apple to bypass a free tier to Apple Music. This continues to be regarded as a controversial move given how Spotify has shown the ability to use its free tier as a tool to grow its paid tier. 

By seeking to control much of the revenue in music streaming, Apple would be looking to make the streaming market that much less attractive for competitors. Removing the oxygen from the room would add further strain to music streaming companies' balance sheets. This is where Apple's rumored interest in Tidal comes into play. Any deal for Tidal would not be about getting access to the service's 4.2 million subscribers. Instead, Apple would be interesting in gaining access to Jay Z and friends. Losing out on Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Kanye West album exclusives over the past year irked Apple. While Apple Music eventually got access to most of the exclusive content, the amount of attention and breathing room that Tidal received was obviously not something Apple enjoyed. Acquiring Tidal and bringing Jay Z on board Apple Music will be a way for Apple to make Apple Music more attractive and capable of getting additional revenue share. (My complete analysis on the Apple/Tidal acquisition talks, including my thoughts on Tidal's current price tag, is available here.)

Step 4: Create an environment for independent artist sustainability. The last step for owning the music industry is arguably the most difficult but also the most intriguing. Up to now, we have largely focused on Apple attempting to gain control of the music industry by appealing to the top one percent of music artists, those who hold the most power in the industry. These artists are the ones that go on tour and are overall able to do things capable of shaking the boat when it comes to deals and news. In essence, these are the artists that are not relying on music streaming to find sustainability. 

Missing from this strategy are indie artists, the musicians trying to find a way to not just reach their fans, but also find sustainability. I am not optimistic that paid music streaming is the answer for these artists. Something else is needed. This is where a platform that makes it possible for smaller artists to connect with their fans and then monetize their art can go a long way in adding sustainability to the music industry. If Apple is successful in acquiring the most valued music listeners, the company has a fighting chance to own such an indie platform given greater odds that people will spend money. However, as seen with the growing troubles surrounding the App Store and independent developer sustainability, it's clear that this step is still some distance from fruition. 

The combination of owning a significant portion of the music industry's revenue share and having a platform that offers sustainability to all musicians would give Apple much of the available power in the music industry. By consolidating power, Apple would hold the strings to the entire music industry. 

Potential Problems and Risks

With each step, Apple faces challenges and risks in its quest to own the music industry. Spotify continues to demonstrate skill and talent when it comes to understanding how consumers listen to music. The company should not be underestimated. 

When it comes to exclusives, music rights owners have an incentive to make their music available to as many people as possible, potentially complicating Apple's strategy to bet big on exclusives. In addition, exclusives spread out across a number of streaming services are not user friendly, especially when viewed in light of the era of music exclusives found with brick-and-mortar retailers. An extensive expansion of music streaming exclusives may lead to a rise in music piracy. 

For acquiring streaming revenue share, any friction in terms of Apple Music's design or user interface decisions may impact Apple's ability to sell the experience to customers. Finally, for independent artist sustainability, the biggest risk Apple faces is not dedicating enough resources to the cause. In addition, social will end up playing a key role in how artists find sustainability, potentially complicating Apple's efforts in this area. 

Future Implications

If Apple is successful in terms of gaining control of the music industry for the second time in 15 years, there are quite a few significant implications. Apple would be able to pivot from legacy technology (paid music downloads) and win at a new business model (music streaming), despite being a few years late to the game.

Apple would utilize its user platform to establish a beachhead in a new technology and then leverage its balance sheet to find a more competitive position by grabbing revenue share. This strategy provides a framework for how Apple will look at its next content realm: video. While one can argue the music industry has certain qualities that make it much more friendly for a company like Apple to control compared to video, there are qualities both music and video share that Apple will look to exploit. 

Apple's primary lesson from the early iTunes and iPod years was that a focus on the customer experience had an outsized impact on an industry that was undergoing significant change. It was much easier for Apple to offer a superior experience that customers valued when there was much chaos and unknown in the air. Apple's master plan to own the music industry involves adding chaos into the music industry by leveraging its $233 billion of cash. Apple continues to think big with its music ambitions. 

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Apple Watch Is Already a $10 Billion Business

It took fourteen months but it finally happened last week. I began seeing Apple Watches on a daily basis. Just a few months earlier, it would have been rare for me to see someone wearing an Apple Watch. Something has changed. Despite the short amount of time on the market, the Apple Watch has been called everything from Apple's largest flop in decades to the next big thing after the iPhone. In reality, we actually know much more about how the Apple Watch has performed to date, and there is evidence Apple is still just getting started. 

Something Changed at WWDC

Heading into this year's WWDC, Apple Watch expectations were at a low. The most recent comments from Apple management about Watch sales being focused around the holidays implied Watch sales had slowed somewhat materially in recent months. Developer interest and buzz around watchOS was lackluster, and recent price drops introduced questions about customer demand. 

Things changed following Apple's WWDC keynote. It was clear Apple had no plans of slowing down with Apple Watch. More importantly, Apple was willing to make changes to Apple Watch software. As seen with the rethought user interface included in watchOS 3, Apple spent the past year studying how people were using Apple Watch. Friction points such as a clunky interface and little-used features, including Glances, were removed. Instead, Apple went back to the basics with a simpler interface and additional focus on Watch faces as the device's most valued real estate. (Additional thoughts from WWDC concerning watchOS 3 are available here).  

Some people interpreted the changes found in watchOS 3 as evidence that Apple admitted it was wrong with Apple Watch. I disagree. That type of interpretation not only ignores everything that Apple got right about Apple Watch, such as Watch bands, but also ignores reality. Apple Watch financials portray a different story. Apple Watch's first year was not the disaster that many are now implying. 

Apple Watch Financials

In terms of Apple Watch unit sales and revenue, we haven't been left as much in the dark as initially feared. While Apple has kept its official stance of not disclosing Apple Watch sales, management has not been shy about providing clues for reaching reliable Watch financial estimates.

Every three months during Apple's earnings calls, we have been given at least one major clue as to how Watch sales had fared. Here are the key clues that Apple management broadcasted on the past four Apple conference calls:

  • July 2015: "The revenue from Other Products grew sharply [3Q15], up 49% over last year. The contribution from Apple Watch accounted for well over 100% of the growth of the category, and more than offset the decline of iPod and accessory sales...And to give you a little additional insight, through the end of the quarter, in fact the Apple Watch sell-through was higher than the comparable launch periods of the original iPhone or the original iPad."
  • October 2015: "Sales of Apple Watch were also up sequentially [in 4Q15] and were ahead of our expectations."
  • January 2016: "We set a new quarterly record for Apple Watch sales [in 1Q16], with especially strong sales in the month of December [2015]."
  • April 2016: "For some color on how we think about Apple Watch sales, we expect its seasonality to be similar to the historical seasonality of iPod, which typically generated 40% or more of its annual unit sell-through in the December quarter...unit sales of Apple Watch during its first year exceeded sales of iPhone in its first year."

In taking all of these clues into consideration, I have a high degree of confidence that Apple has sold 12 million Apple Watches to date. Exhibit 1 includes my Apple Watch revenue and unit sales estimates broken out by quarter. 

Exhibit 1: Apple Watch Financials (Above Avalon estimates)

While these numbers are indeed lower than initial consensus estimates that came out when the Apple Watch was launched in April 2015, it would be incorrect to brush off a business that generated $6B of sales in its first 11 months.

Valuing Apple Watch Inc.

In an effort to better quantify how the Apple Watch is performing, we can value the Apple Watch business as if it were it a standalone company. One benefit of this exercise is removing the Apple Watch from the iPhone's shadow. Most financial metrics seem inconsequential when compared to the iPhone juggernaut. 

Two items are needed to value a hypothetical "Apple Watch Inc.": 

  1. Financial metrics
  2. Valuation framework

Given Apple's functional organizational structure, the company does not manage the Apple Watch as a separate division with its own profit/loss profile. While we can derive an estimate for Apple Watch gross margins, when it comes to estimating operating expenses, the calculations would prove less useful. Expenses such as salaries, retail costs, and even R&D are shared by Apple's broader product portfolio. 

An alternative is to focus on Apple Watch revenue. This financial metric not only makes sense for measuring a product's success within a functional organizational structure, but also is something that we can estimate for Apple Watch with a fairly high degree of confidence.

When it comes to valuation, we can value Apple Watch Inc. by using a revenue multiplier. We take annual revenue and then multiple it by a certain ratio to obtain how much the market would be willing to pay for the right to own that revenue and future cash flows. This particular ratio can be obtained by using comparable company analysis. We look at how the market is valuing other consumer gadget hardware businesses.

Along those lines, I used three consumer tech hardware peers:

  • Apple: Given the iPhone's share of Apple revenue and operating income, we can use Apple's current market valuation as a proxy for how the market is valuing the iPhone business. Apple currently sells at a 2.6x price/revenue ratio.   
  • Fitbit: Fitbit derives pretty much all of its revenue from wrist wearable hardware sales. This places the company as the most direct peer of Apple Watch Inc. Fitbit currently sells at a 1.1x price/revenue ratio.
  • GoPro: GoPro serves as a good proxy for how the market is valuing a hardware company with slowing sales, increasing competition, and an unknown future. Things aren't looking good for GoPro although the company does appear to be making one last ditch effort to reinvent itself by hiring Danny Coster from Apple. GoPro currently sells at a 1.1x price/revenue ratio. 

The interesting element found with these three peers is that each company is facing significant questions about hardware sales growth. While much has been said about GoPro's and Fitbit's issues, even Apple is expected to report a 15% decline in revenue in 2016. Accordingly, even if we assume Apple Watch revenue will decline over the next year (something that may be possible) this doesn't necessarily imply that the Watch should be rewarded a valuation multiple much lower than Apple, let alone Fitbit or GoPro. 

As seen in Exhibit 2, I estimate that if Apple Watch was a standalone entity, it would be worth $10 billion. This estimate reflects a 1.7x price/revenue multiple, which is higher than Fitbit and GoPro's current price/revenue multiple. A higher multiple is justified due to Apple Watch's strength when it comes to appealing Watch bands, stronger customer loyalty, and deeper software and hardware integration. I am valuing Apple Watch in-line with Apple's enterprise value/revenue multiple. Even though the wearables category is much less established than the iPhone business, growth prospects remain quite attractive for the Apple Watch market in comparison to the mature smartphone industry. 

Exhibit 2: Apple Watch Inc. Valuation Peer Analysis

Even if we valued the Apple Watch business as if it had the same future prospects as GoPro, we would still come out with a $7 billion valuation, which highlights the conservatism found in a 1.7x price/revenue multiple and $10 billion valuation.

Apple Watch Paradox

The preceding valuation exercise showcases the paradox that has engulfed the Apple Watch. While recent Apple Watch changes seem to imply that Apple management is pressing the reset button on the product, in reality, Apple already has a $10 billion Apple Watch business on its hands. This is even before all of the significant changes in watchOS 3 were unveiled on stage at WWDC. Rather than pressing a reset button, Apple is systematically going through the Apple Watch business to fix friction points that developed over the first year. All of this is being done to position the Watch for improved adoption and a valuation much greater than $10 billion. 

There is evidence that Apple is still only getting started with Apple Watch. A closer look at Apple Watch bands reveal much potential and intrigue in terms of both technology and fashion. WatchOS 3 clearly positions Watch faces as a new kind of app for the wrist, which may represent the first genuine answer to the question of how to best interact with apps on the wrist. This could represent the beginning stages of an Apple Watch face App Store and a new stream of recurring revenue. I also think that Apple has major changes planned when it comes to Apple Watch collections, Watch case materials, and marketing. Apple's September keynote is shaping up to be an Apple Watch focused event. Add it all up, and Apple isn't walking or jogging but sprinting ahead with Apple Watch. We will likely look back at the weeks leading up to WWDC 2016 as the bottoming of Apple Watch expectations.

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WWDC Clues Hint at Apple's Post-iPhone Era

This year's WWDC felt different. While Apple's annual developer conference still showcased the company's software strategy for the coming year, last week's keynote also contained an unusual number of clues related to Apple's hardware ambitions. Apple's strategy for eventually moving beyond the iPhone is coming into focus.

Previous Apple Product Eras

One way to see where Apple is headed is to look at Apple through the rearview mirror. The Mac as Digital Hub era was Apple's first genuine product philosophy following Steve Jobs' return to Apple. The idea was simple. Instead of worrying about a growing number of dedicated peripheral electronic devices, Apple would focus its resources on positioning the Mac at the center of the universe. Users would then connect their growing collections of accessory devices to their Macs. 


As mobile devices became more powerful and occupied larger roles in our lives, Apple dedicated resources to designing Mac peripherals that had the most potential to be consumer blockbusters. First came the iPod, and this was followed by the iPhone. Selling more than just a few Mac models, Apple began thinking of its product strategy in terms of a stool on which each leg represented a different product category, as shown in the diagram below. At the same time, Apple continued to build out its services and cloud offerings to serve as the glue keeping the stool together.


At this year's WWDC, Tim Cook's message to developers was that Apple's current product strategy revolved around four "category defining and world changing" platforms: watchOS, tvOS, macOS, and iOS. While it may sound like these four platforms have replaced the old product categories found with the Apple Stool strategy, in reality, Apple's current product strategy looks very different. 

As shown in the diagram below, not all software platforms are viewed equally. iOS remains at the center of the universe given the iPhone's sheer dominance and is supplemented by continued iPad popularity. Meanwhile, watchOS is for a product that is still dependent on the iPhone while macOS and tvOS are much smaller platforms with cloudier long-term outlooks. 


When taking a look at nearly every financial metric, it's clear that we are still firmly in the iPhone as Hub era at Apple. There are nearly twice as many iPhones in the wild as every other Apple product combined. Despite slowing iPhone sales, Apple will still sell nearly five times as many iPhones as iPads in 2016. On a revenue basis, the iPhone is responsible for 65% of Apple's annual revenue and 75% of Apple's annual operating income.

WWDC Clues

Given such lopsided financial metrics, it has been very difficult to envision how Apple will eventually move beyond the iPhone. Some think Apple's only choice is to monetize the iPhone business using services. Others don't think Apple will actually be able to successfully come up with a post-iPhone strategy.

Fortunately, Apple's WWDC keynote last week contained clues as to where Apple's product strategy is headed. One theme found throughout management's slides was a focus on the user experience. Whether it was rethinking the iPhone lock screen or opening up additional iOS services to third-party developers, many of Apple's software changes were done with the user experience in mind. (I reviewed additional themes and observations from the keynote here and here). However, much more intriguing were the two fundamental shifts underpinning this focus on the user experience. Each shift portends an era in which the iPhone is no longer at the center of Apple's product strategy.

App Evolution. We are starting to use apps differently. Apple sees an era in which instead of downloading dozens of apps and arranging them in a grid pattern on our iOS devices, we rely on a number of services to handle our daily tasks. Apple's motivation for funneling developers into Siri, Maps, and Messages will end up making it that much easier for users to consume content and data across a number of hardware form factors. As a prime example of how this shift from an app-centric model to a service-centric framework changes Apple's product strategy, consider the Apple Watch. Apple has said that the Apple Watch is positioned within Apple's product line to handle tasks formerly given to the iPhone. In a world where content formerly found on third-party apps is eventually found within Apple services, while it may have made sense to use an app on our iPhone, it will now make just as much sense to use Siri or Messages on our wrist.

Services. Given the movement of third-party app functionality into services, Google is half-right when saying that it is time to move beyond the device. Services are becoming smarter as we give our devices additional tasks and data. This immense level of data ends up placing more value and capabilities with the glue that has traditionally held Apple's collection of gadgets together. However, Google and other services-oriented companies don't have it completely right. When services become more valuable, one consequence is the altering of how we use different form factors. Hardware does not lose relevancy. Rather, a world in which services are much more useful and valuable ends up elevating new hardware form factors that have access to these services. For example, tasks that may have traditionally been given to the Mac, iPad, or iPhone we will eventually be able to do on wearable devices because of more valuable and capable services. It is difficult to think of a form factor that is unable to utilize Siri in one way or another. 

The Apple Experience Era

Apple will look to move beyond the iPhone by offering users the ability to create custom Apple experiences. These experiences will involve a range of hardware form factors, the software platforms running on those form factors, and the Apple services connecting each form factor. The following diagram depicts this new Apple Experience era. Depending on the user, each form factor will hold varying levels of importance as depicted by the blue circle's size. The dotted lines represent the Apple services connecting all of the form factors. The solid lines represent situations in which there may be a greater level of dependency between form factors. 

Users will then choose which form factors make the most sense for their daily schedules and lifestyles. For some, an Apple Watch equipped with Siri, Messages, and Maps combined with a pair of not-yet announced wireless Apple EarPods will handle most of the tasks formerly given to an iPhone. For others, it may continue to make the most sense for an iPhone to be at center of their digital lives. It is not a stretch to think of more unusual combinations such as an Apple Watch and iPad as someone's two primary computing devices. Meanwhile, an eventual Apple Car will represent another point of contact for customers interacting with the Apple experience and range of Apple services. 

The key aspect of this new Apple Experience era will be Apple's ability to sell an experience tailored to the user. Instead of having a static web of devices in which the iPhone is at the center and everyone uses the other form factors in a similar fashion, this web of Apple products will change depending on the user. In the diagram below, notice how User A places much more value on an Apple Watch and wireless EarPods (depicted by larger circles). However, for User B, the iPhone and iPad hold a greater amount of importance.

Key Tenets of the Apple Experience Era

There are three major tenets of this new Apple product era. 

Hardware plays a crucial role. While nearly every Apple peer wants customers to begin thinking beyond the device and instead focus on the data-rich services connecting various types of hardware, Apple's future will contain plenty of hardware. We need hardware to record and then consume data. In addition, there will always be a human desire to interact with products. Apple will likely position hardware as the variable that makes its services that much more attractive than competing services. Look no further than Apple's decision to locally do all facial recognition as well as object and scene recognition processing in Photos on the device. Being able to use a service on a range of well-designed devices is something that Apple can excel at while other companies would need to rely on partners or others to make this happen. 

Services represent the glue. Apple will position products such as Siri, Messages, Maps, Apple Music and an eventual Apple Video service as the glue that holds various form factors together. 

Experience matters. From Apple's perspective, the key to moving beyond the iPhone is to offer users the option to personalize their technology needs with hardware and services. Apple will use certain criteria such as mass-market appeal to pick and choose which product categories and services end up getting precious Apple resources.

Apple's Challenges

At first glance, it would appear that Apple has all the ingredients in place to move beyond the iPhone. Apple's industrial design capabilities continue to be industry-leading, and WWDC began to peel away some of the mystery surrounding Apple's path for incorporating deep learning into its services. However, there are two big risk factors that need to be monitored very closely. 

Apple remains a resource-strained company. The most valuable resource is time and energy. Given the company's functional organizational structure, management has tangible limitations as to the number of projects that can be undertaken at any one time. As seen in the Apple Experience era diagrams, it would not be a stretch to see the number of blue circles, representing Apple hardware form factors, to increase. However, at a certain point, Apple will begin to find that it is unable to expand in new areas while still supporting legacy industries or products. Management is quite vocal that Apple says "no" much more than "yes" when it comes to new products. In addition, the company is not afraid to cannibalize its own products. These statements will likely be tested in the coming years.

The second risk factor involves Apple being able to learn how to add chaos to new industries. Apple has no experience in the transportation industry. Yet, the company will need to not only place a bet as to where the industry is headed, but also be prepared to pivot in order to potentially use different business models, including different ownership models

Moving Beyond the iPhone

Apple's plan to move beyond the iPhone won't be to come out with another pocket-sized computer that is capable of bringing in $200 of profit per device. Instead, Apple will look to build an Apple ecosystem containing various form factors and services that are well positioned to take advantage of the evolving app ecosystem. As the company enters new industries and sectors with new hardware form factors and services, the company will need to embrace new business models and ways of doing business. However, despite this tall order, the focus on the product and user experience will be the guiding light for Apple's goal of establishing a new product era after that of the iPhone.

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No One Wants to Be Apple

Something has changed in 2016. As the smartphone growth era winds down and we begin to look for the next big thing in tech, there has been a surge in pessimism pointed towards Apple's business model. With many of Silicon Valley's software and services giants doubling down on their core competencies and becoming more vocal as to where technology may be headed, one thing is clear: No one wants to be Apple. 

Declining Apple Envy

The iPhone has been a one-of-a-kind product for Apple. With 35% net operating margins and an average selling price of more than $600, the 948 million iPhones sold to date have resulted in more than $200 billion of profit for Apple. The fact that tens of millions of users upgrade to new iPhones every other year has been the financial icing on the cake. Apple's profit from iPhone has contributed to the company's annual net income increasing nearly 15x since 2007. 

While Apple was making more than $200 of profit per iPhone sold, Apple's peers were making much less from the software and services running on those iPhones. Even when taking into account the much larger Android user base, we see that other forms of smartphone monetization just haven't been able to match the profit Apple has received from hardware margins. Of course, Apple's bundled software and services contributed to those high hardware margins.

As iPhone profits grew, Apple envy increased. Meanwhile, Apple's hardware and software integration resonated with premium smartphone users, the most attractive segment for advertisers. As a result, Apple peers began to dabble with hardware along with other Apple strategies. The thinking was that maybe Apple's hardware and software integration strategy was finally seeing validation after nearly three decades of losing. 

The environment has changed in 2016. Apple's quarterly revenue declined for the first time in 13 years as iPhone sales fell year-over-year for the first time. In addition, there are various warning signs beginning to show in the iPhone business.

Accompanying this iPhone sales growth slowdown has been a marked change in attitudes toward Apple's business model. Many have turned pessimistic about Apple's strategy of relying on periodic hardware margins for a majority of its earnings. Peers are now focusing on the downside and risks of being Apple. The prospects of coming up with new products that rival the iPhone seem daunting. Apple competitors have made the decision to end their quest to be like Apple and are now doubling down on their own core strength: recurring revenue associated with advertising and services.

Fading Hardware Envy

The clearest sign of changing attitude towards Apple is Silicon Valley's declining fascination with hardware. While Google made it crystal clear last month at its developer conference that it was ready to begin moving beyond devices, the company had spent the past few years displaying a serious flirtation with those same devices and the idea of recreating Apple's hardware and software integration business model.

Google's $3.2 billion acquisition of Nest in 2014 was positioned as a game-changing transaction that could give Google a formidable head start in the smart home arena. Nest CEO Tony Fadell was even positioned as a potential Google CEO successor to Larry Page. Having a hardware whiz in charge of a data-driven ad company seemed to be quite the intriguing proposition. Just three years earlier, Google had purchased Motorola for $12.5 billion, a transaction that was positioned as a patent defense play but ultimately was born from the fact that Google did not do its own hardware.

In reality, Google's foray into hardware has been nothing short of a complete failure. Google ended up selling Motorola Mobility to Lenovo. Meanwhile, Tony Fadell just announced he is leaving Nest, an ominous sign that Nest's future within the Alphabet web of subsidiaries is now up in the air. 

Google wasn't the only company to flirt with Apple's hardware and software integration model. Microsoft showed a clear interest in copying Apple and controlling both hardware and software. While the strategy was largely a legacy play from the Steve Ballmer era, Microsoft seemed to believe in it enough to have a big hardware-focused NYC event just last October. Eight months later, it is clear that consumer reception to Microsoft hardware hasn't exactly caught the world by surprise. The quest to rethink the laptop with Surface Book went nowhere. 

We can also rope in Facebook's and Amazon's infatuation with producing its own smartphone as additional data points about Silicon Valley's previous interest in hardware over the years. Much, if not all, of this interest had been based on Apple's sheer success with the iPhone and iPad. While it was possible to beat Apple in terms of smartphone unit sales or market share, the fact that Apple was making nearly 45 percent gross margins on its hardware gave the company a monopoly on industry hardware profits, a statistic still true today. 

Things are very different now. Slowing smartphone sales and the ongoing tablet market implosion have resulted in mobile hardware having a much less rosy outlook. Apple peers are now becoming much more vocal that it is time we move beyond hardware and focus on the services and networks running on hardware. No one wants anything to do with Apple's hardware business.  

Fading Retail Envy

Another example of a change in attitude towards Apple strategy relates to brick and mortar retail. While Sundar Pichai was on stage at Google I/O 2016 explaining why it was time to move beyond mobile devices and embrace an "AI-driven" world, Apple was putting the finishing touches on its new Union Square Apple Retail store a few miles away in San Francisco. The juxtaposition of these two events symbolized just how different Apple is thinking from the rest of Silicon Valley when it comes to technology in 2016. 

Apple's Union Square wasn't just any new Apple Retail store. Instead, the location showcased Apple's new Retail store design strategy. Along with a fresh, new look thanks to input from Jony Ive, one of the store's main features is a reimagined customer service area. The infamous Genius Bar had been replaced with a Genius Grove since "Bar" may bring up unpleasant connotations. Apple wanted to improve the experience customers received when getting help with Apple products. A customer can now chat with an Apple Retail store employee while literally sitting under a tree in Genius Grove. 

In many ways, rebranding Genius Bars into Genius Groves is very Apple. While some may just see a subtle name change, the very different atmosphere created by the new setup can go a long way in making Apple stores feel less crowded, more approachable, and relaxing. All three of those attributes denote improvements to what had been increasingly positioned as friction points in Apple Retail stores in recent years. 

Apple's continued investment in brick and mortar retail isn't surprising. However, many of Apple's peers who envied the company's success in retail are now having second thoughts. Microsoft's aggressive retail expansion has led to nothing more than lots of empty retail stores. Samsung's store strategy has no rhyme or reason as the company struggles to produce a cohesive product strategy following the Galaxy line of smartphones. There were ongoing rumors that even Google was close to jumping into brick and mortar retail. We can't forget those mysterious Google barges that popped up in 2013 with the best guesses being that Google was interested in unveiling Google Glass showrooms.

The only tech company other than Apple still showing a genuine interest in brick and mortar retail is Amazon and even then, Jeff Bezos isn't so much looking to be like Apple but instead eventually establish a web of locations to pick up and drop off Amazon packages.  

The New Envy

Instead of wanting to be like Apple by doing hardware and getting into brick and mortar retail, Silicon Valley is now infatuated with data and the services meant to capture such valuable data. Google's vision of a world moving beyond hardware seems to represent a significant threat to a company like Apple. It's not just Google. The Amazon Echo has turned into a poster child for this "post-device" world in which some users could theoretically do less on their iPhones and iPads and instead use their voice to interact with a bunch of speakers and a microphone in a stationary tube. In addition to Amazon and Google, Microsoft and Facebook have extensive resources and attention focused on similar types of data collection and aggressive plans with artificial intelligence. 

It should come as no surprise that companies with no formidable hardware strategy are now more vocal about tech's future not revolving around hardware.

A growing number of industry observers think if the device doesn't matter as much going forward, Apple's core competency when it comes to hardware becomes less valuable. The argument then extends to Apple's business model not being suited to produce best-of-breed services geared towards data capture. This seems to give Apple an even more dire outlook. 

In reality, Apple envy has flipped. Companies once jealous of not doing their own hardware are now doubling down on their core competency: data collection. Facebook has spent more than a decade building a curated version of the web in order to have users stay on a Facebook property and in the process, share more data. A similar dedication to data collection can be found at Google, Microsoft, and Amazon. 

Finding the Puck

With all of this change swirling in the air, there is increased uncertainly as to how Apple will proceed. As peers move away from envying Apple's position in tech, will Apple management feel the need to change or adapt and become more like everyone else to compete? 

There is no question that Apple has holes or deficiencies in its product strategy. While some of these holes have been, and continue to be, filled by M&A and outside hires, Apple has historically seen much success by changing the game and narrative. Along those lines, we have still not seen Apple's response to Facebook's and Google's developer conferences. This is why Apple's developer conference next week takes on a different tone than that of previous years when Apple envy was much higher. With that said, Apple management will likely take its time to respond to the growing number of criticisms lobbed towards Apple's business model.

At the end of the day, Silicon Valley and Wall Street are figuring out how to connect some of the last remaining dots found with the smartphone growth era. While some will want to say that the future has already been determined and either machine learning or even voice will quickly replace much of the current smartphone and tablet paradigm, in reality, the future has not yet been determined. AR and VR still have a long way to go before reaching mass-market appeal. Voice interfaces are in their infancy and contain a number of troubling aspects and problems. Artificial intelligence and machine learning are still mostly buzz words with plenty of time and room left to see where technology trends. Wearables are quickly moving to the point of being the de facto evolutionary next step for the smartphone. And of course, the smartphone is ushering in a revolution in the transportation industry. 

As Apple envy winds down in Silicon Valley and Apple peers no longer see the allure of being like Apple, Tim Cook and the executive team are familiar with finding ways to prove skeptics wrong. The next big thing after the smartphone has not yet been figured out, and Apple has a few ideas on where it thinks the puck is headed. While everyone is headed in one direction, Apple thinks the intersection of technology and liberal arts will be found in a different place. 

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