Above Avalon Podcast Episode 149: Letting Go of the Rope

Despite there being no discernible change to the grand vision behind Apple’s product development, there does appear to be a noteworthy change in strategy. Episode 149 is dedicated to discussing how Apple’s product strategy has changed from a pull system to a push system. Additional topics include product-related implications raised by Apple’s revised strategy, the Grand Unified Theory of Apple Products, and why I’m hesitant about some aspects of the change.

To listen to episode 149, go here

The complete Above Avalon podcast episode archive is available here

Apple's Product Strategy Is Changing

This year’s WWDC felt different. While every WWDC keynote is filled to the brim with new features, this year’s announcements included highly anticipated items like a new Mac Pro and differentiated iPad software features. In addition, there were some genuine surprises such as SwiftUI (a big deal with wide-ranging implications for Apple’s ecosystem). Despite there being no discernible change to the grand vision behind Apple’s product development, there does appear to be a noteworthy change to strategy.

The Past

Apple had been following a product strategy that can be thought of as a pull system. The company was most aggressive with the products capable of making technology more relevant and personal.

One way of conceptualizing this product strategy is to think of every major Apple product category being attached to a rope. The order in which these products were attached to the rope was determined by the degree to which technology was made more personal via new workflows and processes for getting work done. Accordingly, Apple Watch and iPhone were located on the end of the rope held by Apple management. Meanwhile, Mac desktops were located at the other end of the rope while iPads and Mac portables were somewhere in the middle.

As Apple management pulled on the rope, the Apple Watch and iPhone received much of the attention while the Mac increasingly resembled dead weight.

The preceding exhibit may make it seem like all of Apple’s product categories moved in sync with each other as Apple management pulled on the product “rope.” In reality, the quicker Apple pulled on the rope, the more chaotic the end of the rope moved. The following exhibit does a better job of demonstrating the chaos found at the end of the rope.

The Apple Watch and iPhone were Apple’s clear priorities while the iPad, Mac portables, and Mac desktops ended up facing a battle for management attention. The iPad seemed to have the clear advantage in that battle, at least when it came to capturing mindshare among Apple’s senior ranks. Recall Tim Cook’s comment about the iPad being the clearest expression of Apple’s vision of the future of personal computing.

Today

Over the past two years, we received clues that a major change was beginning to take hold in Apple’s product strategy. This change was on display during this year’s WWDC. Consider the following announcements:

  • The Apple Watch continues to gradually gain independence from iOS and the iPhone with its own App Store and the ability to create watchOS apps without an iPhone app.

  • iPadOS is a promise from Apple that iPad will be given unique software features versus iPhone. Features like multitasking and Apple Pencil support give iPad differentiation from its more popular sibling (iPhone).

  • The new Mac Pro is clear evidence of Apple industrial design, along with the engineering and product design teams, attempting to come up with a long-term solution for the most powerful computer in the product line.

  • SwiftUI is the kind of foundation Apple needs to properly leverage a thriving iOS developer ecosystem in order to benefit other product categories.

Apple no longer appears to be relying so much on a pull system when it comes to advancing its product line. Instead, a push system is being utilized, and every major product category is being pushed forward simultaneously. The change was designed to reduce the amount of chaos found at the end of the “rope” that Apple was pulling. Accordingly, the primary benefactors arising from this new strategy are the iPad and Mac. This explains why this year’s WWDC announcements felt more overwhelming than those of previous years. Apple was able to move its entire product category forward at the same time.

This revised strategy ends up supporting a core tenet of my Grand Unified Theory of Apple Products - a product category's design is tied to the role it is meant to play relative to other Apple products. (A deep dive into Apple’s product vision and the Grand Unified Theory of Apple Products is available here for Above Avalon members.) By pushing the products geared towards handling the most demanding workflows, Apple has a greater incentive to push the products capable of making technology more personal and relevant.

It’s not that every product category in Apple’s line is now on equal footing in terms of importance and focus. Some products will receive updates every few years while others require more attention due to needing annual updates. In addition, Apple’s revised product strategy likely won’t change the sales ratios between product categories (iPhone outselling iPad by four times while iPad outsells Mac by more than two to one). Instead, the change from a pull to push system manifests itself with each product category being given a defined and unique role to handle within the Apple ecosystem.

  • Wearables are tasked with handling entirely new workflows in addition to a growing number of workflows that had been given to iPhones and iPads.

  • The iPhone is the most powerful camera and video player in our lives.

  • iPads and Macs are content creation tools.

Implications

There are a number of product-related implications arising from Apple’s revised strategy:

Mac Desktops. Despite being in the post-PC era, desktops are experiencing some kind of renaissance. Some of this isn’t entirely surprising given how the desktop has always been viewed as an antidote to some of the ideals found with mobile. However, what is new is the realization of the desktop’s role in the AR era. Mac desktops are niche in terms of the number of users relative to other Apple product categories, albeit a very powerful and crucial niche.

Mac Portables. It is time to take Apple management at its word when it says the Mac is important to Apple’s future. Mac portables will likely retain a place in Apple’s product line for the foreseeable future. A few years ago, low-end Mac portables seemed to be on a dead-end path thanks to iPads. There is no longer any evidence that such thinking is widely held in Apple’s senior ranks. An ARM-based Mac portable seems inevitable at this point.

iPad. Just a few years ago, some in the tech pundit world thought the iPad lacked a future. Such thinking was due to slowing iPad sales combined with larger iPhones being able to handle many of the use cases originally given to iPad. While the iPad has always been viewed as the future of computing within Apple, we are starting to see that vision materialize. iPad sales are now routinely surprising to the upside as Apple adds a “pro” layer to the iPad category in terms of powerful hardware and software.

iPhone. The iPhone as a product category continues to mature, as seen with a longer upgrade cycle. Going forward, the iPhone will primarily be known as the most powerful camera in our lives and a video consumption device. Many of the less intensive use cases and workflows currently given to the iPhone will naturally flow to wearables over time.

Wearables. Apple is the wearables leader. Fitbit would arguably be the closest from the perspective of unit sales but even then, the company is quickly losing momentum. Lessons that Apple learned with iPhone and iPad are now giving the company a wearables advantage that is likely at least five years. An independent Apple Watch not requiring an iPhone to set up is inevitable. The move would increase Apple Watch’s addressable market by three times overnight. In addition, Apple is well on its way to establishing a wearables platform as it competes for prime real estate on our wrists, in our ears, and in front of our eyes.

Will It Work?

Is Apple making the right product strategy decision moving from a pull to push system? It’s too early to tell. At first, the revised strategy may seem like a no brainer as each product category ends up benefitting from more attention. However, it’s not a given that such a dynamic is in Apple’s best long-term interests.

The source of my hesitation in Apple’s new product strategy is that the company’s long-term success is dependent on one item: making technology more personal. Anything that takes away from that goal ends up being a hurdle. Is Apple supporting legacy workflows to the detriment of Apple’s long-standing mission of making technology more personal and relevant?

One reason Apple decided to change product strategies in the first place was to avoid an all-out uprising among the 1% of the user base creating content consumed by the other 99%. The mistake Apple made over the past few years was pulling the product “rope” too fast and in the process, leaving many of its pro users, defined by the workflows needed to be supported, behind.

For a company that is resource constrained when it comes to time and attention, there is no guarantee that Apple’s functional organizational structure and design-led culture can realistically scale to push an endless number of product categories at the same time. This was the key benefit found with Apple’s pull system. The focus was to advance the products capable of making technology more personal and relevant while trying to bring as much of the broader product portfolio along for the ride. The move to a push system is inherently more complex. Apple finds itself doing a whole lot more that it did just a few years ago.

Some will push back at the claim that Apple is resource constrained considering the company has $113 billion of net cash on the balance sheet. However, such a view doesn’t take into account how Apple functions. Apple could have thrown together some components in a big box and shipped a new Mac Pro shortly after realizing that the previous Mac Pro design was a dead end. Instead, Apple’s industrial designers, working in close collaboration with various teams, took a little over two and a half years to come up with what is marketed as a long-term solution for handling the most demanding content creation workflows. Similar questions now plague Apple pertaining to its approach to “pro” Mac portables.

My concerns regarding Apple’s revised product strategy would be alleviated if Apple came up with a plan to push legacy platforms forward by doubling down on future initiatives involving making technology more personal. This is why SwiftUI is intriguing. Apple is positioning SwiftUI as a way to improve a developer's productivity by requiring less code, resulting in better code. What if that is only scratching the surface as to Apple’s ultimate objective? What if the Mac is being repositioned as an AR creation platform while iOS is gradually positioned as a platform for developing wearables apps? Using a billion iPhones to develop apps consumed on billions of wearable devices is the type of goal that would require years of work, foundation building, and periodic changes to product strategy.

Receive my analysis and perspective on Apple throughout the week via exclusive daily updates (2-3 stories per day, 10-12 stories per week). Available to Above Avalon members. To sign up and for more information on membership, visit the membership page.

Above Avalon Podcast Episode 148: Apple's Billion Users

Apple has reached a level of ecosystem strength that still hasn’t been fully digested by the marketplace. In episode 148, we discuss Apple’s ecosystem ahead of the company’s developers conference. Additional topics include how I estimated the total number of Apple users, various revenue per user figures for different parts of Apple’s user base, the difference between Apple in 2019 and the 1990s, and how wearables represent one of Apple’s key growth opportunities.

To listen to episode 148, go here

The complete Above Avalon podcast episode archive is available here

Apple's Billion Users

Apple’s ecosystem is massive. Approximately a billion people are using more than 1.4 billion Apple devices. Even as iPhone sales decline, Apple is bringing tens of millions of new people into its ecosystem each year. However, we are getting to a point where it is prudent to begin thinking about what user growth actually means to Apple.

Number of Users

Estimating the total number of Apple users is a relatively straightforward exercise. This past January, Apple disclosed that there were more than 900 million iPhones in the wild. Given that iPhones are not typically shared, Apple’s disclosure implied that there were approximately 900 million people using iPhones. Since the exact number of iPhones in the wild likely now exceeds 925 million, there is some wiggle room in that 900 million user total for the rare instances of people using more than one iPhone.

Apple also disclosed that there were 1.4 billion active devices in the installed base as of January 2019. The total was up by 100 million devices over the preceding 12 months and up by 400 million devices over the preceding three years. This tells us that there are 500 million Apple devices being used that aren’t iPhones. A majority of those 500 million devices are iPads. The Mac represents another 110 million devices, and a collection of wearables and home accessories make up the remaining devices. Given my Mac and iPad installed base estimates, a conservative estimate is that there are at least 100 million people who use either an iPad or Mac but not an iPhone. Adding these 100 million users to the 900 million people with iPhones leads to a billion Apple users.

A billion users is quite the accomplishment for Apple considering how the company does not give away or subsidize hardware. For context, Amazon has approximately 100 million Prime users. Twitter sells a “free” product and has 125 million daily users. A “free” Google service is widely considered a success once it surpasses a billion users. WeChat recently surpassed a billion daily users. Facebook sells a “free” product and has 1.6 billion daily users.

Revenue Per User

Using Apple’s current revenue run rate and my estimate for the total number of users, the company earns on average $258 from every user per year. There are limitations found with relying on averages. Apple’s ecosystem strength is dependent on geography. In addition, other factors like the gray market distort averages. Accordingly, it makes sense to segment Apple’s user base to gain additional insight into revenue per user figures.

There are approximately 200 million Apple users who have never purchased a new product from Apple or a retailer. Instead, these users rely on Apple products acquired or obtained via the gray market. The overall contribution to Apple’s revenue from these users is likely not too great - a few dollars per month, if that.

On the other end of the spectrum, the U.S. represents Apple’s stronghold when it comes to ecosystem strength. Add to hardware revenue various subscriptions such as Apple Music, paid iCloud, and various third-party subscriptions through the App Store. It is not unreasonable to assume that approximately 50 million to 75 million users spend an average $500 per year on Apple products and services. There are then other pockets of “core” Apple users in various countries including China, Japan, the U.K., and Australia.

Based on Apple’s installed base disclosure, we know there are at least 400 million Apple users who use only one Apple device: an iPhone. The actual number could be much higher. Given an iPhone upgrade cycle of four years and an iPhone ASP of approximately $750, this tells us that at least 400 million people are likely spending somewhere around $200 per year.

Accordingly, Apple’s billion users can be broken into the following groupings:

  • 200 million people spending an average of $25 per year (people in the gray market).

  • 620 million people spending an average $260 per year (includes 400M iPhone-only users upgrading every four years).

  • 180 million people spending an average $500 per year (Apple’s core users in the U.S. and a handful of other countries buying a number of Apple products and paying for various services and subscriptions).

Growth Driver

The iPhone has been Apple’s primary vehicle for bringing people into the ecosystem. No other Apple product has come close to the iPhone in this respect. Exhibit 1 includes my estimates for the number of users purchasing their first new iPhone directly from Apple or a third-party retailer. This serves as a rough proxy for the number of people entering Apple’s ecosystem.

Exhibit 1: Number of Users Buying Their First New iPhone

More information and discussion behind how I derived the preceding estimates is available here.

Based on recent iPhone sales trends, there is evidence of fewer users buying their first new iPhone. For example, my expectation is for 52 million people to buy their first new iPhone in 2019. This total is 60% less than the peak number seen in 2016.

After the iPhone, the iPad has been the second-largest driver bringing new users into the Apple ecosystem. However, given that the iPad installed base is a third of the size of the iPhone installed base, the new user totals just don’t compare to those of iPhone.

Putting all of the pieces together, Exhibit 2 includes my estimates for how Apple’s overall ecosystem has grown in terms of the number of users.

Exhibit 2: Number of Apple Users

Slowing New User Growth

There is no question that Apple’s user growth is slowing. Much of this is due to Apple running out of premium smartphone users in key markets like China and India.

Some people are convinced slowing user growth represents a warning sign for Apple. The concern is that Apple will once again look to milk existing users with higher-priced products and services in an effort to offset slowing hardware sales. Much of this fear is based on how lack of new user growth nearly killed Apple in the 1990s. Instead of focusing on new user growth, Apple milked existing Mac users for as much money as possible. The end result was a complicated product line that lacked focus and vision.

In my view, this is an incorrect way of thinking about today’s situation.

Much has changed with Apple over the past 25 years. During the mid-1990s, Apple’s user base was a fraction of the size of today’s user base. Apple had around 25 million users in the mid-1990s. Simply put, Apple’s user base wasn’t large enough to reach sustainability. Instead of focusing on bringing in new users, Apple took the easy route and simply kept selling to existing users. Today, Apple has 40 times the number of users and is bringing in 25 million new users roughly every six months. Apple’s billion users comprise a self-sufficient ecosystem. The company is in a strong position to sell additional devices and services to these billion users without jeopardizing the long-term health of the ecosystem.

New User Plateau

While new user growth is slowing, it’s not a given that Apple will reach some type of user plateau. As Apple continues to move into more personal devices such as wearables, the company’s addressable market will expand, especially in emerging markets. In countries like India and Brazil, products like iPhones, iPads, and Macs may not be the best tools for bringing new users into the ecosystem. Instead, lower-priced wearables may eventually open the doors to tens, if not hundreds, of millions of new Apple users in markets that up to now have been largely out of reach.

Opportunity

Apple is a design company tasked with developing tools capable of improving people’s lives. Such a mission plays a critical role when figuring out how best to judge Apple.

Apple doesn’t think about financial items such as revenue or profit margins when developing products. The same principle applies to new user growth. Jony Ive and the industrial design group don’t sit around a table and come up with products for the purpose of bringing new users into the ecosystem or increasing revenue per user. Such motivation would have manifested itself in a less focused product line over time.

However, Apple does consider and think about how new products may fit within the existing product line. For example, Apple Watch was launched out of the gate as an iPhone accessory. A pair of smart glasses will likely be similarly positioned as an accessory out of the gate as well. These considerations are part of Apple’s long-standing goal of making technology more personal and having new products serve as simpler alternatives to existing products.

The implication found with this product strategy is that one of Apple’s key opportunities going forward is found with developing and then selling new tools to existing Apple users. A feedback loop can then be created as new tools and services drive higher user loyalty and engagement and subsequently even higher tools and services adoption. This will likely manifest itself in higher revenue per user over time as Apple users rely on additional Apple tools in their lives. As Jony has said in the past, financial items like revenue and profit end up being byproducts of a successful product strategy.

This brings us back to the Apple revenue per user calculations from up above.

  • 200 million people spending an average of $25 per year (people in the gray market).

  • 620 million people spending an average $260 per year (includes 400M iPhone-only users upgrading every four years).

  • 180 million people spending an average $500 per year (Apple’s core users in the U.S. and a handful of other countries buying a number of Apple products and paying for various services and subscriptions).

With wearables, Apple is in a good position to drive a portion of the 400 million users who likely only have an iPhone to begin using another Apple device. One way of measuring this opportunity is that if 200 million people spend more like $350 per year versus $260 per year, Apple could see an additional $18 billion of revenue per year. Another opportunity is found with the 200 million users who are part of the Apple ecosystem via the gray market. Assuming Apple can sell additional tools to a portion of those users, Apple would see something in the neighborhood of $12 billion of additional revenue per year (100 million people spend more like $150 per year versus just $25 per year). These are huge numbers that speak to how much room the company has for existing Apple users to become more engaged with the ecosystem. In the mid-1990s Apple simply tried to milk its limited number of users of more money. Apple is now engaged in expanding its users’ tool arsenal while continuing to add new users to the ecosystem.

While Apple will continue to face various risks when it comes to maintaining user loyalty and engagement, especially when it comes to factors outside of its control like economic and geopolitical developments, the big picture is that Apple’s billion users is a game changer. The company has reached a level of ecosystem strength that still hasn’t been fully digested by the marketplace.

Receive my analysis and perspective on Apple throughout the week via exclusive daily updates (2-3 stories per day, 10-12 stories per week). Available to Above Avalon members. To sign up and for more information on membership, visit the membership page.