Just when commentators were beginning to query its growth prospects, Apple posted record Q1 2012 results of $39bn revenues and almost $12bn net profits, respectively 50 per cent and almost 100 per cent up on a year ago. That means its margins are increasing. As participants in a fascinating CRESC seminar on the Apple business model heard this week, they more resemble those of a software or professional services firm than a mass-manufacturer. According to one calculation, Apple’s capitalisation has overtaken that of Spain, Greece and Portugal combined.
Being unique, Apple in one sense is unrepresentative. But in another its very success starkly poses some of the most urgent, representative questions about 21st century capitalism – not the usual questions about how it does it, but why.
In some respects, Apple is a role model. It understands better what it means to be a company than almost any other. It has twigged that the best way to compete is to remove itself from direct competition through innovation. Markets eventually compete away the high price of novelty – although slowly in Apple’s case – but by that time it has been able to use the proceeds to innovate some more – first in computers, then in music, followed by phones, tablets and, not least, retail.
That is possible because Apple reaps full benefit from doing more things righter for consumers than any of its rivals. Apple’s real genius is embodied not in products but in the ‘institutional ecosystem’ that links products to their marketplace: first the integrated hardware and software, then iTunes and the App Store. iTunes is built on the power of ‘pull’ – it makes it absurdly easy for you to get exactly what you want, no more, no less, as opposed to what a record producer wants you to have. Nothing mediates between demand and instant supply. The App Store goes a step further, giving iPhone and iPad users the opportunity to go beyond customisation to create additional value themselves – as with burgeoning medical or social-entrepreneurial applications, for example.
Crowdsourcing apps means that Apple doesn’t even need to know what a device is for. The iPad is a mega-hit that has no killer app – but, hey, that’s OK, the customer can decide. Outsourcing innovation like this keeps Apple effortlessly differentiated (thus justifying those everyday high prices) while the customer does the work – and by the way, Apple, will take 30 per cent of your App Store returns as its cut for providing the platform. Financial genius: but because of the potential for user value creation Apple can claim to generate at least some of what Umair Haque terms ‘thick’ or authentic value, as opposed to the thin, extractive financial kind.
Not that Apple is light on the financial kind. And this is where questions surface that don’t arise for less profitable firms. Where does this stupendous profit come from? What is it for? As one blogger asked, is Apple too profitable?
In fact, unique as it is, the business model that emerged from the seminar evokes unease as well as admiration. Apple’s stakeholder relations are weirdly asymmetrical: while the tight customer relationship is legendary, the financial engine is overdeveloped at the expense of a social conscience that is stunted to the point of autism. How else could it have been caught so unawares by the labour abuses uncovered at assembler Foxconn’s Chinese plants? Apple’s reaction – to demand improvements without changing its own draconian terms – gives Foxconn little option but to replicate its customer’s behaviour in even more extreme form, outsourcing and beating up its own subcontractors. The sufferers are employees, many of whom, says activist and researcher Jenny Chan, are semi willing student interns. While in Apple’s relationships with customers both sides gain – thick value – in those with its Chinese suppliers there is only one winner. As Aditya Chakrabortty noted in The Guardian, Apple’s business model offers no benefits to US workers, who badly need jobs and incomes – but little more to its Foxconn subcontractors.
These issues come into sharp focus as, with margins rising as Foxconn’s fall, and $110bn (more than enough to satisfy even Steve Jobs’ notorious conservatism) sitting in the bank, Apple asks itself a momentous question. What is it to do with all that money?
The standard ‘thin value’ answer is to ‘disgorge’ it to shareholders. The thick value alternative – and Apple’s pivotal opportunity – is to use it to benefit the environment on which it ultimately depends by creating stable, well-paid US jobs and investing in supporting technologies and institutions. With labour accounting for just 4 per cent of an iPhone 4’s production costs, it could well afford to. And until 30 years ago, when the ideologically based shareholder value movement falsely decreed that shareholders alone bore risk and were therefore entitled to all the reward, that’s what it would have done. Instead, in the 1980s such inclusive ‘retain and reinvest’ models (keynote speaker Prof William Lazonick’s term) gave way to the sharply shareholder-focused ‘downsize and distribute’ as managers responded to their equity-based incentives. Employment, career and pensions have all been sacrificed on the altar of shareholder returns, not to mention (as Foxconn workers will testify) pay and conditions. Thus have business models like Apple’s been used to benefit directly the 1 per cent at the expense of the rest of us.
As Lazonick’s research shows, as dividends and share buybacks have absorbed ever larger proportions of US company earnings, less and less has been left for R&D. So not surprisingly innovation is another casualty. Will that be Apple’s story? Stock options currently worth $730m give CEO Tim Cook every incentive to continue on the 'downsize/distribute' track, and the recent announcement of renewed dividend payments and authorisation of share buybacks point ominously in the same direction. Perhaps naively, I still harbour hope that the company’s sensitivity to its customers (not shareholders) gives us a pressure point to push on. As Chan notes, ‘Products embody social relations’ – and those embodied in iPhones and iPads are simply unworthy of the company customers want Apple to be. This, rather than a drying-up of creativity after the passing of Steve Jobs, may be the real danger to Apple’s future: as Chakrabortty puts it, for all the sleekness of its products, Apple’s business model is not just unattractive – over the long term, it may be unsustainable too.