Apple's record profits are astonishing, but there's room for competition yet

It is important to remember that the world's most valuable brand has released just one new major product line during the past decade

Apple continues do outdo itself in terms of net profit. Reuters
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Apple's earnings hit a record $34.6 billion net profit in the last quarter. What is most remarkable about that?

Is it the almost impossible to comprehend number - that is $34.6 billion of net profit, not even just sales?

Is it that the company continues to advance and consolidate its position as the world’s most valuable brand and a company by market capitalisation worth $2.6 trillion in the face of the disruption of on-off store closures, the pandemic affecting staff and customers, the global tech supply chain and distribution?

Is it that it defies what everyone has warned about for some years now, that a consumer market so saturated with devices would mean there is less room to grow than in the heady days of five or more years ago?

Or is the real surprise here – and I leave myself wide open for a pummelling from Apple nerds – that the company continues to soar and outdo even its own outrageous success despite this admittedly a bold statement: Apple has launched just one major new product line in more than a decade.

Apple’s chief executive Tim Cook said that the quarterly results were made possible by the company’s “most innovative” line-up of products and services. If you are the CEO with oversight of all that a company is doing – and charged with selling it to the world – then of course the company is busy reinventing itself and its sources of revenue. That is how successful companies work, they evolve, they are breathless, there is always more to do and improve, there is no standing still.

But the reality for the consumer is a little different. After the iPhone came the iPad in 2010. I would argue that Apple’s only major new consumer product between 2010 and today was 2015’s Watch, which is now in its seventh iteration. Where are we with iPhone? It is on its 13th major iteration. That is famously what Apple does so well: iterations, not new products. Since its earliest days Apple has been about the next version of an already good or great product, less so about true innovation or being first. And it works! Get the product right then make the next one in that series just enough of an upgrade to be worth acquiring for those who are hooked or aspirational in what they carry around in their pockets. Leave the less profitable, more "out there" R&D to others and once that is perfected buy it, or adapt it, for Apple. Or so it seems.

I mentioned the excitement of a decade ago in the world of mobile. When I was consumed by all things mobile in my job at the time, smartphone launches seemed genuinely exciting, with Samsung and Google vying with Blackberry, Apple, HTC, Nokia – remember Eriksson? – and then the domestic Chinese giants entering the global market. Going to the World Mobile Congress in Barcelona back then seemed hugely glamorous given it was a trade show, and genuinely the cutting edge of many things that would help to shape our day-to-day lives in the years to come. It was ahead of its time, or perhaps we have just not caught up with that early promise. The Internet of Things was one of the big displays back in 2013 and we are still talking about it now one way or another, our lives gradually adjusting to the new technologies available in our homes, offices and cars.

There was genuine innovation in the industry: near-field communication, mobile payments, advances in cameras and all the features that Apple subsumed into its products after they had been rolled out in less glamorous handsets by companies with less focus on design – there is only one Sir Jony Ive – and less focus on marketing. But then the chin-strokers who have watched the mobile industry evolve have always had Apple down as a style over substance specialist, even if they love it. Its products are truly great, simple to understand, indeed essential now for many of us, as well as being lifestyle accessories. It is why Apple is the world’s biggest company and one can argue deservedly so. But its business model suggests that the field is wide open to competitors to introduce us all to the next big thing, which is unlikely to come from Cupertino, even as Apple's profits soar.

Published: January 28, 2022, 8:54 AM
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