Apple’s quarterly profits took a dip last week and, so universally is the company renowned, even my dad asked me if the firm’s latest numbers heralded the beginning of the end.
Ever since the phenomenal popularity of the iPhone propelled the company to new heights, people have been searching for signs that Apple’s star might be on the wane. The death of Steve Jobs was the firm’s most high profile blow and, should things start to crumble, this will be identified as the turning point by official and unofficial historians alike. Since then Apple’s execution has wobbled once or twice, fuelling speculation that it might be on the slide.
It is neither foolish nor unreasonable to look for these signs, because there is no such thing as permanence. When Nokia’s handset market share dropped from just above 40 per cent to just below it didn’t seem like the beginning of a dizzying spiral of descent—but’s that what it was.
So while Apple still managed to turn in profits of $9.5bn for the quarter—pleasingly plump by anyone’s standards—it is possible that the company is in the early stages of some kind of decline.
It’s possible but it’s not probable and, in any case, the turning circle of a P&L like Apple’s is pretty wide. I doubt if anyone really believes that Apple is about to drop off a financial cliff but, nonetheless, change of a sort is becoming apparent.
Financial indicators may be the most popular with observers but they’re not the most interesting and, for me, Apple’s greatest achievements have always been psychological. There’s no doubting the front to back technical prowess behind their products, of course, but that prowess simply does not warrant the fervour with which Apple is loved by some and loathed by others.
Nor does it alone explain just how, under Steve Jobs—arguably the world’s greatest modern salesman—Apple managed to exert such influence over the world’s mobile operators. I can think of no other issue on which mobile operators have, for years on end, been so consistently unwilling to offer comment. If they ranged the iPhone they were terrified of revealing the terms for fear of queering the deal. If they didn’t they were terrified of talking hypothetically for fear of losing the opportunity for ever.
It was the industry’s great, unspoken truth: Everyone knew the operators weren’t happy but none of them dared say so.
In light of this it was fascinating to see reports in the Swedish press at the end of last week that Tele2 CEO Mats Granryd had broken step and voiced his frustrations at Apple in the frankest terms. “It would be best if people stopped buying Apple,” Granryd said. “I hope that Apple gets bad. It’s very difficult to do business with Apple.
His words had the intensity of a long-supressed emotion finally given vent and you can be sure that many other operator executives will have read of his outburst with silent approval. We reported the story and drew comment from another (former) senior operator executive who said:
“The not so hidden part is the subsidising of the handsets that Apple requires, which in fact makes the operator look at the business case of iPhone as a loss leader. The more hidden costs are associated with the mandatory marketing and QoS requirements that Apple demands. When you add up the whole cost, any business manager worth an MBA will tell you, it is not a business you want to be in.”
Earlier this year, meanwhile, the CEO of Telenor Norway complained to Telecoms.com of her struggles in getting Apple to enable the iPhone 5 for use on her network.
As operators start to speak out It feels like Apple’s hold over them may be weakening, especially as they begin to move away from device subsidy. Could the operators, like Dorothy and pals at the end of the Wizard of Oz, be peeking behind the curtain and seeing the reality behind the thundering voice of authority?
Apple is a firm that makes great mobile phones but in that it is not alone. Maybe a more equitable relationship between the vendor and the operators is now emerging.