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Apple's Future in Smart Phones - Part I

Apple is the clear leader in today’s consumer smart phone market. Research in Motion leads the commercial market. I am going to make the case that a few years from now, they will have a single digit market share. They will turn into a Performance Leader, a small high-priced competitor in the market. This position will be similar to the one Apple holds today in the personal computer market. It appears that Apple is following the same pathway it followed in the personal computer market. Perhaps a bit of history is helpful here.

The business model of Apple differed from that of the PC. Apple was not the first personal computer, but it was, by far, the best. And, it got paid for being the best. Apple really created the mass market for personal computers. It had a huge percentage of the marketplace by the time 1981 rolled around and IBM introduced the PC. Apple controlled both the hardware and the software for its personal computer products. On the PC side, Microsoft’s Windows controlled the software, while a large number of companies became hardware producers for the Windows operating system. In the early years of the personal computer, the hardware was far more expensive than the software.

The PC market had a great deal more competition…and cost/price reductions. Apple prevented any other hardware producer from copying its products. There was at least one company who tried, Franklin Computer. But Apple killed them off in the mid-1980s. From that point on, there were no clone producers of Apple machines. The picture was very different on the IBM/Microsoft side. IBM found itself facing many competitors. Most of those competitors we called “clones.” Dell was one of those clones. This large number of hardware competitors reduced the cost of hardware drastically during the late 80s and through the 90s. (See “Audio Tip #196: Why Economies of Scales Exist” on StrategyStreet.com.) The source of much of the cost of the hardware for a personal computer shifted to the Intel or AMD chips embedded in the hardware. Still, AMD constantly challenged Intel, so Intel had to reduce its prices in order to maintain its very high market shares in chips. All of this intense competition reduced the cost of hardware until today the software costs as much as the hardware. Competition forced hardware components and prices down to such an extent that the PC platform had significant price advantages over the Macintosh/Apple platform. Apple was pushed into a high-cost/high-priced hardware position.

The competition in software was much less pronounced. It has only been in the last few years that Microsoft has had to respond to lower cost competition from Linux and Google. These lower cost competitors have had an impact on Microsoft’s prices, but nothing like the impact that the hardware competition had in reducing the price of hardware. The mass market followed the lower priced PC market. Apple today produces a marvelous machine. It has rabid and loyal fans. It also has high prices and a single digit share of the personal computer market. Were it not for the genius of Steve Jobs and his cohorts at Apple inventing new products with higher margins, Apple would be struggling today, much as it was before Steve Jobs returned to the company. It wouldn’t make a lot of money in the personal computer industry because the industry Standard Leaders, the PC producers, are so cost effective, and so much lower in price, than is Apple.

In Part II, we will see how this same pattern is playing out in the smart phone market.

Posted 9/23/10

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