The Apple Services Myth

The narrative surrounding Apple Services has taken on a life of its own. While many people think Apple is moving to embrace a more services-oriented culture in response to slowing iPhone sales, the reality is much different. It's time to dispel the myth that Apple is becoming a services company. 

The Myth

Apple Services was thrown into the spotlight this past January when it became apparent that Apple would soon report its first year-over-year decline in iPhone sales. In an effort to get Wall Street to focus on something other than slowing hardware sales growth, management began to weave a new Apple narrative involving terms such as "installed base related revenue" and "installed base related purchases." Apple's goal was to provide Wall Street with a different way to think about Apple's business. 

The plan made sense on paper. Apple had amassed a loyal customer base of more than 750 million people spending an increasing amount of time and money on iOS apps and content. Apple was sitting on a $20 billion per year stream of services revenue growing at 20% per year. 

However, many company observers misinterpreted the change in narrative as Apple looking to pivot into a services company. Given Facebook's and Google's successful narratives on Wall Street based on recurring revenue streams, it was thought that Apple management must be trying to follow a similar path.

The Apple Services myth was born. We have gotten to the point where seemingly every report chronicling iPhone sales declines quickly turns to Apple's supposed push into services. Articles about slowing Apple hardware sales include boilerplate language about management looking to boost recurring revenue streams. Relatively minor Apple moves such as bringing paid search to the App Store are now being classified as signs of management's new strategy of becoming more like a services company.

The Actual Story

Apple's original services narrative has been taken completely out of context. Management's goal in pointing out service revenue was to emphasize the value found within the iOS ecosystem, not to explain an upcoming pivot away from hardware.

Here's Tim Cook on Apple's 1Q16 earnings call explaining Apple's services business: 

"[A] growing portion of our revenue is directly driven by our existing install base. Because our customers are very satisfied and engaged, they spend a lot of time on their devices and purchase apps, content, and other services. 

They also are very likely to buy other Apple products or replace the one they own. And because of the enduring value of the device, their replacing is likely higher to be given or sold to someone who will also love and use it often. 

So, as a result, our install base has been growing very fast and has recently reached a major milestone, crossing 1 billion active devices for the first time. This is an unbelievable asset for us. Because our install base has grown quickly, we have also seen an acceleration in the growth of our services business, another large and important source of recurring revenues."

Cook is making the case that Apple's service business is seeing strong growth because of the growth in the install base driven by hardware sales. Nowhere did Cook discuss a new Apple directive aimed at increasing services revenue. Specifically, Cook is taking the information found in Exhibit 1 and flipping it on its head.

Exhibit 1: Apple Revenue

At initial glance, things look pretty grim for Apple with sizable year-over-year revenue declines expected in every major hardware segment in 2016. However, one fact that isn't easily visible in Exhibit 1 is the amount of new people Apple added to its installed base over the past year. I estimate the iPhone alone is responsible for adding nearly 100 million new people. In terms of unit sales growth, this may not be enough to keep the iPhone in growth territory, but it sure goes a long way in eventually boosting services revenue as Apple positions apps, content, and services such as Apple Music to these 100 million new people. Cook wanted to tell Wall Street to look beyond declining hardware sales and instead think of this installed base growth and the implications it has on Apple's recurring revenue stream. 

Services Revenue

A closer look at Apple's financials goes a long way in demystifying the Apple Services myth. Exhibit 2 highlights the growth in services revenue since 2010 in relation to Apple's hardware revenue. The ratio between the two has actually declined over the past six years. In 2010, Apple services represented 14 percent of Apple's hardware revenue, lower than the 12.5 percent expected in 2016. This may be quite shocking to those who figured Apple has been focused on growing its services business over the years. 

Exhibit 2: Apple Revenue (Services vs. Hardware)

However, circling back to Cook's actual services narrative, the point isn't that Apple has been focused on growing its services business but rather that strong services performance is an outcome of strong hardware sales.

Apple is making the claim that the much higher "red" bars found in Exhibit 2 denoting Apple's hardware sales will eventually end up boosting Apple's services revenue as the installed base grows and people spend more time and money in the Apple ecosystem. Apple hardware is needed to grow Apple Services. Instead of Apple becoming a services company, Apple will continue to be an experiences company selling hardware products that include Apple services. Only when this occurs can Apple support a larger recurring revenue business in terms of apps, content, and services. 

Apple's Services Goals

Even though Apple is not becoming a services company, it is incorrect to assume that there isn't a role for services to play within the Apple ecosystem. Specifically, Apple has had two long-standing goals when it comes to services: increase the value and functionality of Apple hardware and leverage Apple platforms by delivering content to users. 

Increase Hardware Value and Functionality. Management looks at services as a key differentiator that helps to increase the value found with Apple hardware and software. Services such as Apple Pay, iCloud, App Store, iMessage, and FaceTime are meant to make Apple hardware more functional. If a consumer has the choice between an iPhone and a competing smartphone, Apple wants the services found on iPhone to give the device the edge. 

Apple Services are not built to be stand-alone profit centers. Instead, their value is found by increasing the value of Apple hardware. The two complement each other. Without one, the other becomes less valuable.  

As an example, it is doubtful that Apple Pay, given the service's current economics, will become a revenue driver for Apple anytime soon. Apple users would need to transact more than $1 trillion through Apple Pay for Apple to earn $1.5 billion. However, the presence of Apple Pay may have played a role in Apple selling hundreds of millions of iPhones for approximately $300 of gross profit per device. In addition, some of the 15 million Apple Watches that Apple has sold to date may have been bought by people who were attracted to Apple Pay on the wrist. In a similar way, items such as iCloud and AppleCare service contracts, items within the "Services" line item, won't amount to much from a revenue perspective. Instead, these services play an indirect financial role by straightening the Apple experience and contributing to Apple hardware sales. 

Even services such as Siri, iMessage and FaceTime, despite serving hundreds of millions of users, currently don't contribute directly to Apple financials. Instead, Apple's goal is to position these Apple-exclusive services as ways of increasing the value found with Apple hardware. For Apple to actually become a "services company," not only would the way Apple approach services need to change, but the company would inherently be placing less importance on hardware. This isn't going to happen.  

Delivering Content. The second goal Apple has for services is to be a major player in delivering content to users. This is not a new Eddy Cue directive given priority due to slowing iPhone sales. Instead, Apple has had a long-standing ambition of leveraging its platforms to become a leading content distributor for music, video, and apps. 

Apple has been dedicating significant resources to make the jump from its iTunes empire where paid downloads ruled the day to the new frontier found with streaming. With Apple Music, Apple is looking to own the entire music industry by removing oxygen from the paid streaming market. We see Apple leveraging its balance sheet to obtain artist exclusives and in the process, become a type of music label. The Apple Music/Frank Ocean exclusive was a result of Ocean working with one person from Apple with the goal of trying something unique and different. 

Apple is also displaying all of the signs indicative of a broad push into the paid video streaming industry. Shows such as "Planet of the Apps," and Dr. Dre's "Vital Signs" have the markings of being test runs for what likely will be Apple's plan for investing in a range of original content programming. Similar to Apple's approach to music, Apple would aim to become a big player in video streaming. Apple's goal by getting into original content programming is to speed up the process of apps becoming the main way content is delivered to Apple users. 

The primary reason Apple has been involved in delivering content to users is that  the company is well-positioned to leverage its platforms (nearly 950 million iOS devices, 95 million Macs, and 25 million Apple TVs) to deliver high quality content to hundreds of millions of users. Having Apple Music work with other Apple services such as Siri for hundreds of millions of users gives Apple Music an advantage that competitors lack. 

One potential wildcard concerning Apple and content services involves content bundling. It is easy to envision Apple eventually offering a content bundle subscription that provides a consumer access to all of Apple's content including Apple Music and a future Apple video streaming service. While this wouldn't change Apple's approach to services, it would go a long way in demonstrating the value found in the Apple installed base and broader ecosystem. A bundle may end up being one of the largest Trojan horses in the media entertainment business as Apple could add additional paid content to this bundle over time. 

Doubling Down on Hardware

Apple isn't turning into a services company. The narrative that Apple management tried to sow earlier this year with Wall Street wasn't meant to foretell a shift to new recurring revenue streams. Instead, Apple wanted to give investors a different way to think about Apple hardware sales. Apple can still grow the installed base despite year-over-year hardware sales declines. 

It may seem counterintuitive, but given the way Apple is approaching services (increasing hardware functionality and delivering content to users), management is actually doubling down on hardware. Without hardware, Apple's services business would lose much of its value. 

It is telling that Apple management curtailed its service narrative on the 2Q16 and 3Q16 earnings conference calls. I suspect this was done to slow what had become a services narrative that was being misinterpreted outside of Apple. There is a critical role for services to play within Apple. When looking at Apple's future with Project Titan, services such as ridesharing and new ownership models may play a large part in increasing the value of an Apple Car. However, it would be incorrect to say Apple will become a services company. Instead, Apple's goal will continue to be to sell products that impact people's lives. 

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