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Will Apple’s Pivot to Services Reignite Its Growth Story?

Ian Bezek

Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) has dramatically underperformed over the past six months. AAPL stock is still down nearly 20% from its recent peak, whereas the stock market as a whole is approaching new all-time highs. And tech stocks, in general, have led the 2019 rebound, leaving Apple in the dust.

Will Apple's Pivot to Services Reignite Its Growth Story?

Source: Apple

It’s not hard to see why. In January, Apple shocked the world with a sales warning. That was the first time Apple issued a sales warning since way back in 2002. Now, to be fair, this isn’t the first time that Apple has had a soft hardware cycle.

Apple’s revenues turned negative year over year in both 2013 and 2016 during the iPhone 5 and iPhone 6s cycles.

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Still, this is arguably the worst hardware sales period for Apple within the iPhone age, given the revenue warning. And investors have been slow to forgive AAPL stock.

For one thing, CFO Luca Maestri said just months earlier that Apple was anticipating its strongest holiday line-up and sales yet. So to miss on sales by billions of dollars for the quarter came as quite the blow. Not surprisingly, Apple is refocusing investor attention elsewhere with its new push.

Apple’s Hardware Sales Are Reaching Limits

On various occasions, I’ve suggested that Apple has been an anomaly in that it can make serious money on hardware. In general, tech companies that make big profits in hardware tend to lose strength quickly. It’s simply too easy for competitors to make similar products at lower prices. For every Apple that dominates a field for ages, you have a Nokia or Blackberry (NYSE:BB) that has a few peak years and then fades to irrelevancy.

However, it’s starting to look like even Apple is running into limits in terms of how much profits it can wring out of hardware. The addressable share of the market for high-end smartphones is only so large. Particularly in emerging markets, most people will buy cheaper options from the likes of Samsung or Huawei. And even on iPhone pricing, there appears to be a ceiling where some people say enough is enough.

Throw in how powerful the average iPhone is now, and users feel less compelled to upgrade with every new product launch. In general, there simply isn’t a must-have feature with each new model that drives upgrades if users’ previous phone is still working and holds a good charge.

Apple Turns to Services

Last week, Apple announced a ton of new and improved service offerings. Arguably the most interesting and important of these was the news of an Apple Card to take on the likes of Visa (NYSE:V). Partnering with Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS) and Mastercard (NYSE:MA) for payment processing, the Apple Card could theoretically be a serious rival to Visa. That wasn’t it for announcements though. Apple is also rolling out an improved version of Apple TV, an Apple News feature, and an Apple Arcade gaming service.

In theory, these could all be interesting additions for Apple that could add significant revenue streams. Apple News, for example, by offering a subscription service for journalism could help that industry turn its fortunes around in the digital age, as Spotify (NYSE:SPOT) did for music. It’s unlikely to generate big revenues for Apple at least in the near term though. Same for the arcade, which may shift revenues from in app purchases to subscription but is unlikely to make the overall pie much bigger, at least in the short run.

And for the bigger announcements, there are serious questions about both. Apple TV+ seems too small to be a serious Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) challenger. If Apple spends $1 billion a year on original content, that’s something, but it’s only a drop in the bucket compared to Netflix’s $8 billion budget, to say nothing of Disney (NYSE:DIS) and other traditional content creators. And over in credit cards, our Josh Enomoto described how Apple’s card is a “gimmicky” offering which brings more “hype than substance”. For now, Apple has a lot left to prove with its new services offerings.


AAPL Stock Verdict

Compared to other tech stocks, AAPL stock looks attractive by comparison. Assuming the market continues moving to new all-time highs, it’s not hard to imagine AAPL stock playing catch-up and moving back toward its own previous high at $233/share.

In the longer-run, however, I remain an Apple skeptic. The company has largely tapped the growth potential of its major developed markets. People who are going to buy Apple smartphones are already doing so – where’s the new marginal consumer that hasn’t bought Apple products yet?

Meanwhile, in emerging markets, Apple faces a huge challenge. They don’t have the same sort of lock-in that they do on consumers in developed markets. In China in particular, which was supposed to be Apple’s next big thing, sales are instead going the other direction. That’s because WeChat, which runs on all smartphones, is the key must-have application, rather than Apple OS. Chinese consumers are increasingly happy to use other smartphone makers, as Apple OS and its associated ecosystem isn’t a primary selling point that makes customers loyal.

Overall, Apple’s move to services is probably a smart play. Recurring revenue is a great business model, and Wall Street will bid your stock up as you get more of it. In certain markets, such as the U.S., Apple services will probably deliver major growth. As we’ve seen overseas, however, with something like Apple Music versus Spotify, Apple’s brand matters much less in emerging markets. And as such, Apple services probably won’t be enough, at least on its own, to make up for stagnating hardware sales.

At the time of this writing, Ian Bezek owned GS stock and had no positions in any of the other aforementioned securities. You can reach him on Twitter at @irbezek.

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