Apple and Product Saturation

January 30th, 2014

Once upon a time, it was a very rare thing to see anyone with an Apple product. Consider all those years where the Mac barely made a dent in the PC business, and many people who did use Macs were often regarded as being just a little weird. Well, maybe I just took it personally, but it was a lonely world out there when I visited friends and family and found computers that, to me, were more than a little alien.

Now even though Apple owns the premium PC market nowadays, and the overall market has seen better days, it appears that there’s still plenty of room for the Mac to grow. Apple clearly isn’t following Microsoft’s playbook — to merge desktop and mobile platforms — and there still appear to be a fair number of people for whom a tablet is not a PC replacement.

In other words, there are still untapped markets for Apple to sell more Macs, at least so long as PC demand remains fairly decent. But if it continues to fall at the current rate, Apple will be playing in a smaller and smaller market.

In the mobile universe, smartphones and tablets have grown really fast. It’s hard to find anyone nowadays who doesn’t have one or the other — or both. Even folks at the low end of the income scale can get a smartphone free or at a really low price with a fairly cheap wireless plan. Tablets can be had for $50-$100, although I wouldn’t say much about the quality. And I suppose if a smartphone does a decent job of handling phone calls and texting, that may be all that some people actually need.

Regardless, smartphones dominate, so it seems that fewer and fewer people don’t have one. This means that the handset makers, and that includes Apple and Samsung, are fighting to make new sales in a smaller and smaller pool of customers who don’t have one of these gadgets. In the U.S., the wireless carriers have made sales a little more difficult by lengthening the time before they allow early upgrades.

Well, that’s one excuse Apple CEO Tim Cook gave for fewer iPhone sales. But he ignored the fact that the largest wireless carriers were also busy advertising extra-cost schemes where you could upgrade your mobile handsets more frequently.

What this means, though, is that a large portion of customers for current smartphones are upgraders. It’s not their first purchase, so sales growth is being reduced. If the upgrade cycle lengthens, as it has with the PC, it also hurts sales, and it’s clear Apple isn’t the only tech company to see reduced growth.

Apple, however, shows no inkling of moving down-market. The iPhone 5c, which may or may not have been successful — depending on whom you ask — was simply a repackaging of the previous year’s technology for $100 less. Apple clearly intends to play in the most profitable segments, as they’ve done with Macs.

So will Apple have to accept growing sales at maybe a few percent a year, which is typical for a large company serving a saturated market, or are there different ways to go?

One way is to succeed in emerging markets where a growing middle class will aspire to more expensive gear. This is the logic behind Apple’s expansion into China. If Apple’s efforts to gain traction in China, India and elsewhere succeed, sales may grow at a faster rate, but probably nowhere near the levels achieved in the early days of the iPhone and iPad.

So what is Apple to do? Well, the financial community demands new products in new categories, and Tim Cook keeps claiming they are planning just that. In fact, he’s said it again and again, and I can well understand why some media pundits might just be a tad skeptical.

But it’s also true that the refreshed Mac Pro clearly demonstrates that Apple still has it in them to innovate in surprising ways, although that product obviously didn’t create a new product category.

So if the pressure was high in 2013, it is far higher in 2014, particularly after releasing financials and guidance that the investment community regards as underwhelming. But what are the new product categories that Apple plans to enter? Cook says more than one, so where does Apple go next?

Clearly Apple won’t tell you, although it’s possible, I suppose, for increased pressures, particularly from the investment community, to force disclosure of at least a few hints. Up till now, Apple hasn’t listened to Wall Street because, frankly, financial analysts have never understood the company. That may not change now, but if the hopes and dreams for new product initiatives don’t play out by spring or summer, increasing skepticism from the media and Wall Street could force a different response.

But there’s clearly precedent. Remember that the original iPhone was announced months before it was actually released. There was no product to make obsolete, of course, and it’s also true that FCC testing would have revealed its existence before long. Certainly one excuse Apple gives to withhold information on a new product is how it would impact sales of existing models.

If those existing products are made by other companies, of course, Apple could still stage an early preview, build demand, and, in turn, possibly kill sales of the competition as customers wait for Apple’s solution. This could play out nicely with a smartwatch, the rumored iWatch. If Apple plans a connected TV set, a surprise demonstration might really spook the rest of the industry, particularly since most competing products were already presented at the CES earlier this month.

Sure, Apple usually doesn’t spill the beans on future products, except, of course, when they do. Maybe it’s time for Cook to rethink the strategy, not just to satisfy Wall Street but to tempt millions of potential customers. There’s a lot to be said for building demand early, particularly if Apple has a real hit or two in the wings.

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