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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