The Innovations of Apple: Part II

Steve Jobs iPhone
Instead of further examining where Apple’s current (and future) products fit in on the “innovation scale,” in Part II I want to talk about Apple as an investment, and where its products fit in in terms of investment value.

Apple has been a fantastic investment over the past decade. In fact, since April 2003 when they launched the iTunes store (and iPod sales took off), a dollar invested in Apple would be worth over $40 today – an annualized return of almost 70%. That’s a return that would make most venture capitalists blush. Not bad for a company founded 27 years prior.

One more statistic: even if Apple stock had gone nowhere from its IPO in 1980 up to 2003, its annual return over the three decades since going public would be 13%, which still beats the S&P 500 by over 3%. In other words, almost all of Apple’s current value (~$230 billion) was created over the last seven years.

Where did that value come from? For the seven years ending 2009, sales grew from $5.7bb to $42.9bb. Over 70% of that growth came from new products: the iPod, the iPhone, media sales, and other related peripherals. On a net profit basis, even more than 70% of Apple’s growth came from new products (segment margins aren’t disclosed, but overall margins have hugely increased and most of that likely came from new products). Aside from the storied brand name, Apple is basically a startup that was funded with the cash and income from their struggling Macintosh business.

Apple and the Red Queen Run the Hedonic Treadmill

…it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” – The Red Queen, Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass”

So, clearly, the law of large numbers comes into effect when looking at Apple’s future growth prospects. To double revenues, Apple would have to sell an extra $43 billion a year in products – that’s over 68 million iPhones or 32 million Macs every year.

Of course, investors aren’t counting on Apple’s revenue doubling anytime soon, and the law of large numbers just means it’s more difficult for them to grow, not that it’s impossible. But to me, the more relevant model to use for Apple’s future growth is that of the Red Queen Effect.

The Red QueenIn Lewis Carroll’s follow up to “Alice in Wonderland,” Alice comes across the Red Queen (not to be confused with the more popular Queen of Hearts) and for no reason at all they both begin to run. Alice notices that, despite their tireless efforts, they have remained in the same spot. The Queen informs her that she must keep running just to stay put (see the above quote).

In biology, the Red Queen’s race is translated into the principle that “for an evolutionary system, continuing development is needed just in order to maintain its fitness relative to the systems it is co-evolving with.” I think the Red Queen effect is an apt analogy for Apple’s current situation. Here’s why:

  • Most of Apple’s growth in sales over the past 2 years has been from the iPhone (68% of growth to be exact).  The iPhone was launched in 2007, and most of these sales have been to new iPhone users. Certainly there are much more non-iPhone users to “convert,” but at some point most iPhone purchases will come from current users who are upgrading. This has already happened with the iPod – as seen in the chart above with iPod unit sales tapering off lately.
  • Most future growth will have to come from new iPhone users, iPad sales, and any new products that Apple introduces.
  • To justify Apple’s current valuation, the company must consistently come out with new (and popular) products to both maintain and grow profits. In other words, they have to keep running just to stay in the same place.

The one part of Apple’s business that isn’t susceptible to the Red Queen effect is their share of media/app sales through the iTunes & App store. Because of their closed system (disregarding the downside to this model), Apple controls and gets a cut of almost every application and piece of media consumed on their devices.

The iPod/iPhone/iPad act as mobile “delivering devices” for entertainment and productivity applications. If Apple can maintain their closed system – and Clayton Christensen’s prediction continues to be wrong – their share of content distribution will continue to rake in profits.

But as an investment, I don’t think there’s much of a margin of safety if Apple stops “running” and a new product launch fails. Investor’s high expectations have put Apple on a Hedonic Treadmill of sorts that only a fall in price can cure.

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