Company / division: Apple
Corporate venture capital in Silicon Valley is always fascinating: these are the things big companies choose to invest in indirectly rather than directly, which often leads to fairly complex relationships between some of these companies (notably Google’s relationship with Uber). My Beyond Devices Podcast co-host Aaron Miller did a great breakdown of this feature of the tech industry a while back – have a listen to this episode if you’re interested. It appears Google and Intel were the biggest investors in 2016, with some really sizable bets made by Google in particular during the year. I wish I could see more details from the report, but CB Insights pulls a bait and switch in which it first asks for just an email address and then follows up with a demand for a phone number and job function, so I’m not downloading it.
U.S. iPhone users are spending more on apps – Axios (Feb 22, 2017)
Here’s the second item on apps from Axios today. Whereas the first was about Pokemon Go, this one is about App Store performance in general, and shows that average spending on the App Store continues to rise in the US. That spending is dominated by games, a long-standing trend, and the game spending is likely in turn dominated by in-app purchases. For now, this is great for Apple and its partners: IAP is growing, and that in turn is driving App Store and Services segment growth, something that’s critical to Apple’s growth narrative. However, I continue to find the IAP model troubling – it exhibits characteristics of addiction and relies on a very small number of players paying huge amounts per month. That works as a business model, but it feels predatory and I’d love to see game developers come up and popularize new ways to pay for games – so far, we’ve seen one or two companies do this successfully including UsTwo’s Monument Valley, but Nintendo’s attempt to find a different model with Super Mario Run has been disappointing from a revenue perspective. Still lots of work to be done here.
This is one of two quick pieces from Axios on apps that I’m going to cover this morning. This one shows that Pokemon Go has had a little resurgence off the back of the new characters it released recently, making it a top app again on iOS. To my mind, that again reinforces the point that Nintendo has done far better with the app it only owns a minority share in than with the app it owns outright (Super Mario Run) and likely even makes more money from Pokemon Go despite that minority share. That’s something it’s going to have to think hard about as it prepares to launch additional mobile games in the coming months.
Apple files 14-point appeal against European Commission’s $14 billion tax edict – AppleInsider (Feb 21, 2017)
Long story short: Apple has filed its formal appeal of the EU’s action against Ireland regarding Apple’s tax treatment in the country, and it argues for the dismissal of all charges on the basis of a number of different points. That’s not surprising – Apple immediately after the ruling said it would appeal, so this is just that process rolling along. I’ve never been a huge fan of the ruling – it felt like judicial overreach and part of the ongoing spat between the EU and US on taxes and on competition between US and European tech companies rather than something based on actual legal merit. Nevertheless, as I admitted at the time, neither I nor the vast majority of other tech industry commentators are actually experts in EU tax law, and even admitted experts like the Irish authorities, Apple’s accountants and lawyers, and the European Commission’s investigators can actually agree on what the right answer is. We can state opinions all we want, but they don’t actually matter – this case will go to court and at some point a conclusion will be reached which all the parties will have to live with. A move to enable lower-tax repatriation in the US would certainly go some way to bolstering Apple’s case that it already pays adequate taxes in its home market on what it earns in Europe, but Apple has no direct control over that outcome either.
Intel’s 7560 Modem Could Push Next iPhone to 1Gbps – PCMag (Feb 21, 2017)
There’s some conjecture here on two points: that simply because Intel has added CDMA/EVDO capability to its next LTE modem Apple will use it globally, and that a modem capable of delivering peak throughput of a gigabit per second will actually do so in real world environments. The latter is an obvious stretch, given that real-world performance is always a fraction of the theoretical peak, but the former may well be a stretch too. I’m not convinced that Intel could ramp up production quickly enough to be the supplier for all of the next generation of iPhones – that would be a massive step up over its iPhone 7 supply. And I’m not convinced that Apple, having finally gained a measure of redundancy by dual sourcing modems for the iPhone 7, would so quickly jump back into single sourcing, especially given the performance limitations of the current generation Intel modems. That’s not to say this would never happen, and it’s obviously a very interesting point of leverage in the context of the current bad blood between Apple and Qualcomm, but I still think it’s somewhat far fetched at this point.
One of Apple’s ten $100m plus acquisitions was AuthenTec, which provided technology Apple uses in its TouchID sensor. This apparently much smaller acquisition can be seen as another security/unlock-focused acquisition, this time based on facial recognition, but the company also makes consumer-facing facial recognition apps for use with photo libraries, so I’d say this one could yet go either way in terms of how the acquired technology ends up being used.
As usual, it would be great to understand in more detail the methodology behind this survey, but it’s not available. The Verge seems to have got the rankings wrong – from what I can tell, Samsung was 7th and not 3rd last year – but it’s also worth noting that Samsung’s score dropped from 80.44 to 75.17, which sounds a lot less dramatic than dropping from 3rd (or even 7th) to 49th. The fact is that there are a lot of companies clustered together between 75 and 87 points and so a small drop in the score produces a big drop in rankings. Since the survey was also conducted in November and December last year, when the Note7 debacle was still very fresh in people’s minds, I’m guessing it would score a lot better just a few months from now. Though the Verge picked up on Samsung’s drop as their headline, it’s worth noting where other tech companies sit too: Amazon is #1 (score 86.27), Apple #5 (82.07), Google #8 (82.00), Tesla #9 (81.70), Netflix #18 (79.86), and Microsoft #20 (79.29), all of which classify as either very good or excellent. It’s also worth noting that big cable companies like Comcast and Charter score in the low 60s, which qualifies as “poor”, while the major wireless carriers score 66-72 (“fair” to “good”), with T-Mobile top and Sprint bottom.
I’m not quite sure about the headline here – in fact, I think the point of Apple’s new ads is that the iPad can do many of the things your computer can do but without some of the downsides. The examples cited include built-in LTE, Pencil support, lack of viruses, and portability. It still doesn’t feel like the iPad has a single clear value proposition in the same way some of Apple’s other devices do, but Apple is getting better at communicating some of the several reasons why you might want an iPad, and an iPad Pro in particular. And I’ve no doubt the wireless carriers will be delighted that two of the four ads specifically mention the optional built-in LTE.
I’ve never been a big fan of these kinds of ranking exercises – they’re often arbitrary, designed to make news as much as come up with the right answer, and basically meaningless in the real world. So why am I including this item here? It’s about the specific reason why Apple was chosen here: its silicon chips. This is so overlooked as a source of leadership and differentiation for Apple and yet it’s absolutely critical. It took the acquisition of PA Semi and lots of other work besides, but Apple has spent years perfecting its chip design and it now pays off in massive ways for the company. No wonder you see Xiaomi and others pursuing their own chip strategies, but no-one should assume that’s a straightforward or quick process.
I think the shorter version of this story is that Apple hasn’t been able to revolutionize TV because the traditional TV industry isn’t willing to let it, at least not yet. More than in any other industry, the traditional players still hold pretty much all the cards when it comes to future services from a licensing and content perspective, and until that starts to break down, no outside player is going to make a meaningful difference. That means we’ll continue to have a mosaic of partial replacements for pay TV, mimicking some of the features and content but not others, and leaving users to pull it all together in custom bundles. Apple is part of that aggregation layer today, but doesn’t really play anywhere else – the Apple TV box and the TV app are partial solutions for the fragmentation problem, but are incomplete – you still can’t watch a full slate of traditional pay TV on your Apple TV, and the TV app excludes Netflix among other content providers. Both the box and the app are still useful, but they’re not revolutionary, and the intransigence of the old guard is the single biggest reason. In music, Apple was able to get the labels on board because they were panicking about Napster and file sharing, but the TV industry isn’t yet at that crisis point. In the next couple of years they’ll get there, but in the meantime Apple either has to continue to tinker around the edges or do something that looks less like a pay TV replacement and more like something different, a la Netflix.
This is well trodden territory, but what’s new here is really the sources connected to various entities Apple has had negotiations with in the past, who suggest that its negotiating tactics are a major factor in its ability to get big deals done. But I still think this article is missing the single biggest factor when it comes to Apple and major acquisitions: cultural fit. Apple’s culture is unique and arguably its single biggest asset, but almost every company Apple might consider buying will have a different culture. When it’s a tiny acqui-hire, that doesn’t matter so much – it’s more akin to hiring new employees, and you can both test each one for fit and train them appropriately. That’s much harder to do on a scale of hundreds or thousands of employees, which is why Apple tends to make small technology acquisitions, often in the early stages of their business, rather than big buys. Even Beats, its biggest acquisition to date, was actually a fairly small team, since manufacturing was outsourced, and fit largely into two small pockets within Apple rather than having to be integrated into the company as a whole. To my mind, it’s this issue of cultural fit rather than the price tag or the negotiating tactics that prevents Apple from making bigger acquisitions, and it’s the single biggest question everyone should be asking if Apple ever does pull the trigger on a really big one.
Apple CFO says capital returns will rise if cash repatriation rate is lowered – Financial Times (Feb 14, 2017)
Apple CFO Luca Maestri spoke at the Goldman Sachs conference today, and although the audio quality of the broadcast was miserable, the FT seems to have been able to pick out the best bits. Two specific ones are detailed here – firstly, Apple still hopes to be able to repatriate more cash soon following a change in US tax policy, and secondly, it remains skeptical about more manufacturing in the US. On the former point, it sounds like Apple’s main focus for the repatriated cash would be increasing returns to shareholders and not big acquisitions – that’s not altogether surprising because it’s in keeping with past strategy, but there has been a rising chorus of voices saying that the returns to shareholders don’t seem to be having the desired effect on the share price. The US manufacturing comments also aren’t surprising – everything we’ve heard on this point as it regards Apple specifically has come from others – Donald Trump, Foxconn, and so on – not Apple itself. And certainly manufacturing any kind of high scale product like iPhones in the US would be almost impossible given the lack of appropriate infrastructure here.
via Financial Times
Apple Debuts Planet of the Apps Trailer – Recode (Feb 14, 2017)
Apple debuted the trailers for its Planet of the Apps and Carpool Karaoke shows at the Code Media conference last night. These are two of Apple’s first bits of original video content, both of which will debut as part of Apple Music. Carpool Karaoke still features James Corden on some episodes, but not all, which will detract at least somewhat from the original format, which is compelling in large part because of him. Planet of the Apps is a Shark Tank-style reality / competition show focused on apps. This clearly plays to Apple’s strengths, and gives potential competitors a big draw in the form of featured placement on the App Store. This isn’t my kind of thing – I’ve never been a big fan of reality shows – but Shark Tank is very popular, and Apple’s show mirrors its format pretty closely, so it should do well among the same people that like that show. In addition to music exclusives, these bits of video content are another unique feature of Apple Music, which should help set it apart versus the competition. But to my mind, it’s more interesting to see this as an ongoing push by Apple into original content, which for now may live in Apple Music but certainly has the potential to become the foundation of an Apple subscription video service in future, which could be a much bigger deal.
I’m tying this story to the Apple is Doomed narrative because it would be easy to see today’s news as evidence that investors don’t think Apple is doomed at all. But if you take that approach, you’d also have to say that investors did think Apple was doomed nine months ago when its stock price fell to two thirds its level at today’s close, when in reality that movement tells you a lot more about investor skittishness than Apple’s actual prospects. Apple continues to be massively undervalued relative to major peers, and that reflects an ongoing skepticism that Apple’s ability to sell massive numbers of devices is about more than just smoke and mirrors. Apple is the exception in the consumer electronics market, which is otherwise characterized by low single digit margins at best, and I always suspect that some financial analysts think this is the result of some kind of sleight of hand that will eventually be exposed – there’s really no other explanation for the ongoing under-valuation. The massive swings in Apple’s stock price over time – its 12 month range goes from $89 to the $133 it hit today – are much more about investor skittishness than underlying performance. Certainly there was nothing in Apple’s last earnings that should have triggered such a significant change in sentiment – they were decent results, but guidance for the next quarter wasn’t great, and as usual there was nothing concrete about the company’s longer-term trajectory from management. I continue to be very bullish on Apple in general, but I certainly don’t base that conclusion on what’s going on with the company’s stock price.
Apple does, of course, have two products that use wireless charging today: the Apple Watch and AirPods, both of which charge exclusively without a conventional cable plug. However, neither of those products officially uses the Qi standard managed by the WPC, and of course iPhones don’t do wireless charging at all today. Given that wireless charging has been a staple of iPhone rumors for some time now, this certainly lends plausibility, but it’s also disappointing if this is the flavor of wireless charging Apple is going to implement. I’ve never been a fan of mat-based wireless charging, mostly because it’s actually less flexible than cable-based charging – you have to leave your device on the flat surface, which means no taking phone calls, no two-handed typing, no taking pictures, and so on. I’ve always felt that wireless charging over distance was a far more interesting and useful technology because it could eliminate the need to put a device in any particular spot to charge entirely, which would be particularly good for wearables. There have been rumors about Apple working with Energous, which makes that kind of technology, for some time too, but this WPC membership makes it look as though Apple is going a more traditional route.
via Business Insider
Making More Outside The Mac App Store – Rogue Amoeba (Feb 10, 2017)
Some interesting data points here from Rogue Amoeba, one of the medium-sized Mac app developers which has recently pulled the last of its apps from the official Mac App Store, and has seen roughly similar unit sales and slightly higher total revenues as a result. Although the iOS App Store continues to be the only way to get apps onto an iPhone or iPad, that’s not the case with the Mac, and frustrations over sandboxing, limited business model options, and the lack of formal upgrade mechanisms among other things have driven a number of prominent developers to eschew the MAS for direct sales. It continues to be fascinating how Apple’s approach to the Mac App Store has been so much less successful, in part due to the longstanding existence of alternatives, but in part also due to Apple’s inflexibility and lack of support for key developer requests. For all Apple’s strength and success with developers broadly, its Mac developer story is a lot less compelling.
via Rogue Amoeba
Tim Cook Enthuses Over Augmented Reality – The Independent (Feb 10, 2017)
This is probably the meatiest commentary we’ve had on augmented reality from Tim Cook yet, though he’s spoken enthusiastically about it in the past. Read the last two paragraphs from this interview for the full take, but it’s worth pulling out several points: Tim Cook likes AR over VR because it keeps you in the world rather than taking you out of it; it’s for everyone rather than a niche (by implication, unlike VR, which is most exciting at present for hardcore gamers); it’s as big a deal as the smartphone, and yet not a product but a feature or capability – he likens it to the silicon in the iPhone; and it’s going to take a while before it’s ready for the mainstream (which you can take as meaning it isn’t coming to the iPhone or Apple products just yet, or that it’ll be a niche technology even when it does – the former seems more likely, but who knows.) Lots to chew on here, but for me the silicon comparison is the most interesting – that strongly implies we’ll see this in an iPhone rather than a headset from Apple in the near term.
via The Independent (UK)
Billboard does an annual Power 100 ranking of the most important/influential execs in the music industry. Coming at this from a tech angle, there are several notable companies on the list: Spotify’s Daniel Ek takes the top spot, several Apple folks are at #4, Amazon at #12, iHeartMedia at #19, YouTube at #30, Pandora at #34, Facebook is at #54, and various others are scattered through the second 50. Amazon’s ranking is surprisingly high, but is entirely due to Billboard’s perception of Echo and Alexa’s role in transforming music, as illustrated by Billboard’s interview with Jeff Bezos and Amazon Music head Steve Boom. I think the take here is a little overblown, but there’s no doubt Echo and Alexa are changing the experience of music for the small minority of people who use them. YouTube’s relatively low ranking is surprising given how important a channel the site is for the music industry, but of course its relationship with the labels and artists is complicated. This kind of ranking exercise is always somewhat arbitrary, but it’s interesting to get a music industry take on the tech companies and their relative importance here.
Here’s Why Apple’s 10th Anniversary iPhone Will Likely Cost More Than $1,000 – Fast Company (Feb 8, 2017)
The headline is focused on the price, but there’s some interesting detail in the piece that’s in some ways more important (and likely more accurate). Some of this confirms earlier reporting about OLED edge-to-edge screens, and a home button integrated into the screen. There’s some new information in there too, though, about an integrated 3D sensor, though it’s not clear what it’ll be used for (AR is one obvious bet given Tim Cook’s enthusiastic remarks about the technology). The point here is, though, that the $1000 price point is fully $230 above the base price for today’s 7 Plus, and so it would have to incorporate a lot of additional wizardry to justify that premium. I think it’s far more likely we see another roughly $100 step up from the Plus to $870, though of course with the right storage configurations that’ll easily rise over $1000.
via Fast Company
This is bad news for big content service providers like Netflix and Spotify. This first step appears relatively benign, because it’s simply about using services you’ve already bought while traveling through the EU. But it’s the first step down a slippery slope which is explicitly intended to lead to an eventual single “digital market” across the EU. That means no more charging different rates or offering different content by market, regardless of whether the content may be considered more or less compelling in different countries, or whether local spending power is lower (there’s more than a tenfold difference in GDP per capita between the poorest and richest countries in the EU). This will be hardest on video services, which tend to be very country-specific, than on music services (which tend to offer more or less the same catalog everywhere). No wonder the big providers are fighting it.