Can you buy me now? Apple and the war for the mobile market
What’s past isn’t necessarily prologue.
The short history of the computer industry is dominated by two well-known stories of business triumph and defeat. The first is the story of how mainframe makers failed to take the personal computer seriously until it was too late. Most of them faded away, and those that didn’t still failed to dominate the PC industry.
The second is the story of how Apple Computer, Inc. refused to license its innovative new operating system to other hardware makers in the early days of the PC revolution and ended up ceding the market to Microsoft, which licensed its operating system far and wide.
The temptation to fit every new computer industry business conflict into one of these two molds is strong, and frequently surrendered to. For a modern example, look no further than the current battle for the mobile market between Apple, Google, RIM, and others. The first story may end up applying in the case of RIM, which might have waited a bit too long to recognize the primacy of the touchscreen and the mobile application marketplace. Or perhaps it applies to Microsoft, which refused to let go of the idea of shoehorning Windows onto a phone until very recently (or not).
But I want to talk about the second story, the one about the company deciding not to license its operating system to third-party hardware makers. In the mobile-market version of this story, Google is Microsoft, Android is Windows, iOS is the Macintosh operating system, and Apple is, well, Apple. The pieces match up so well, it’s barely even an analogy. The lesson seems clear: unless Apple learns from its past mistakes and opens up its mobile platform, it’s going to end up with a Macintosh-like minority market share while Google licenses its mobile OS to all comers and the Android phone becomes the Windows PC of the new mobile computing era.
Maybe you’ve heard this sentiment expressed before, and maybe you’ve read the inevitable reactions to it from ardent Apple supporters explaining why the current situation is very different and how Apple will succeed this time around—or perhaps how it has already succeeded. I’m on board with the first part; I think the mobile market is very different from the PC market of old. On the second part, Apple’s prospects for success, I’m less sure.
But first things first.
Built to fail: Apple and the war for the desktop
To understand the differences between the war for the PC market and today’s mobile battlefront, consider the specifics of Apple’s historic failure against Microsoft. According to the story, Apple’s refusal to license its OS led to several insurmountable disadvantages.
First and foremost, Apple had to make and sell all the hardware that would run its OS. Microsoft, meanwhile, had an entire industry working to make hardware for its OS. PC makers fought for every last scrap of the market, building hardware to suit all sorts of customers: PCs for home use, education, gaming, point-of-sale, data centers, businesses, industrial use, you name it. In the heat of this competition, PC hardware prices were driven down and margins were cut to the bone; PC hardware was commoditized.
Even when its catalog of Mac products was at its most sprawling, Apple made a comparatively narrow range of products, with just a few half-hearted excursions into less-mainstream niches. It was clear that a single company couldn’t make and support enough different kinds of hardware to serve the entire PC market.
Since the margins on hardware are a lot lower than the margins on software, Apple was at a distinct profit disadvantage versus a software vendor like Microsoft. To compensate for this, Apple tried to stick to the sweet spot of profitability in the hardware market, avoiding the tiny margins of the very low end and the low volumes of the very high end. This further lowered the glass ceiling of Apple’s maximum potential PC market share.
To add insult to injury, Apple wasn’t even on equal footing when it came to hardware costs. While the IBM PC and its eventual clones used Intel CPUs, Apple chose Motorola—twice. The battle between x86-compatible CPU vendors pushed performance higher and prices lower, but Apple was left out of that virtuous cycle, making its Mac hardware more expensive and often slower than its PC competition.
Pattern recognition gone awry
Now let’s compare this to the contemporary mobile world, starting with the idea that a single company can’t profitably produce a wide enough range of hardware to serve an entire market. While that may have been true for the PC, I don’t think it’s true in the mobile space.
Consider the iPod. Apple started with just one, Mac-only iPod model, refined it for a while, expanded beyond the Mac market by making a Windows version, re-calibrated its aim for the mainstream and released the smaller iPod mini, then iterated confidently while also branching out into less profitable segments. The end result: Apple completely dominated the digital music player market.
Next up is pricing. By allowing hardware vendors to slit each other’s throats, Microsoft ensured that customers would have access to cheap PC hardware while not hurting Microsoft’s own (software-based) profits. At the height of the war for the desktop, PCs weren’t cheaper than Macs by a few dollars; they were cheaper by hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars. That was a crushing blow to Apple’s sales prospects, and one that a company that made its profits from hardware sales had no way to retaliate against.
What does mobile phone pricing look like today? Well, the iPhone isn’t much more expensive than comparable phones. And since phones cost a lot less today than PCs did in the ’80s and ’90s, both adjusted for inflation and in absolute values, the differences are even smaller: tens of dollars, not hundreds or thousands. That kind of pricing differential is eminently surmountable with product features and design—an advantage Apple definitely enjoyed back in 2007 and arguably still has some of today.
A big reason for this price parity is that most of the cost of a phone isn’t in the phone itself, but in the contract with the carrier. An iPhone 4 may cost you $200 to buy, but the contract will cost you thousands of dollars.
This doesn’t mean that there’s no room for handset pricing to affect sales, but it does mean that those price wars will take place at a scale and in a realm where Apple has already proven itself able to win: portable consumer electronics that cost a few hundred dollars at most, dropping down to two-digit prices at the low end.
As for hardware costs and performance, Apple’s component suppliers are the market leaders. Even its "unique" ARM-based CPU uses the same instruction set as the CPUs in its competitor’s phones. For now, at least, Apple is on the right hardware train. And if the time ever comes to make a change, Apple is uniquely experienced in switching CPU architectures in a way that’s mostly transparent to customers.
The right stuff
All of this is to say that the situation in the mobile space today is not analogous in a straightforward way to last millennium’s battle for the PC desktop. Now, without using history as a crutch, let’s reconsider Apple’s mobile prospects. Is the iPhone destined to be a minority player in this market, or will it come to dominate? If, as I propose, a single vendor can provide enough hardware diversity to cover most of the market, and if every player has similar hardware costs and roadmaps, what does it take to win this war for our palms? Where’s the edge, and who’s got it?
An idealist might say that having the better product will make the difference. As much as I’d like that to be true, I don’t think any company has a product that is so much better than its competition in the eyes of so many people that quality alone will decide things.
Critical mass is another factor. Are customers buying iPhones because their friends and relatives have iPhones and they want to video chat with them, use some of the applications they’ve seen, or just be part of the in-crowd? In other words, has Apple’s 2007 launch of the iPhone given it insurmountable lead? Again, I have to say no. Apple had a head start, for sure, but Google has closed the gap quickly with Android in terms of both product quality and sales.
Speaking of which, what explains Android’s recent rapid sales growth? Android is a good OS, but then, so was webOS, and look what happened to Palm. Quality is not enough. Android is available on a wide variety of hardware, but a menagerie of form factors has not stopped RIM’s market share slide. Handset variety also poses challenges to application developers who must target a fragmented platform. Hardware is not going to make the difference. So what will?
Carriers, carriers, carriers
Let’s revisit the Mac/PC analogy, with a twist. In the desktop era, distribution wasn’t much of a factor. Everyone had access to the same retailers, and, eventually, the same Internet. Retail margins were all very similar, and exclusive distribution deals were rare and usually inconsequential. Product features and pricing were the most important differentiators, and both were controlled by the hardware manufacturers.
Today’s mobile market is the polar opposite. Distribution is almost completely controlled by the carriers—albeit sometimes indirectly. A lack of decent coverage in a particular geographic area can eliminate a phone from consideration, regardless of how great the hardware is or how much it costs.
Carriers are also running the show on pricing. Carrying the vast majority of the cost of the phone in their contracts means that the carriers have the most leeway to move the market by, for example, lowering monthly bills, lowering or eliminating bandwidth caps, increasing subsidies (thus making phones appear “cheaper” to consumers), and negotiating how much of this money will be shared with phone manufacturers.
And, of course, the carriers decide whether to allow a phone on their network at all.
Distribution isn’t important when all competitors have the same access, but it’s incredibly important when the market is fenced-off into independent kingdoms, the choice of which can make or break a sale before the merits of the actual product are even considered. The way customers have been buying cell phones for the past few decades further minimizes the importance of the phone itself. Most (non-geek) people take a trip down to “the cell phone store,” choose a contract that fits in the budget and maybe includes some discount plan for friends and family, and then pick the handset that looks the best (or the one that’s suggested by the store clerk). Maybe things like ease of use and application availability are considered in that final step, but at that point, they’re not going to make or break the (contract) sale; the customer is walking out of that store with one of the phones that it sells.
Android sales are surging because there’s a pretty good Android phone—probably several, in fact—for sale in nearly every place that sells mobile phones. And as hard as it may be for some of the people reading this to believe, the Apple store is not where most people go to buy a new cell phone. All those Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile kiosks in the mall exist for a reason. Apple has 229 retail stores and a big marketing budget, but both are dwarfed by the combined retail presence and advertising spending of the carriers. And yes, I’m including AT&T in all this; AT&T sells Android phones too! It’s Apple on one side and an entire industry on the other…starting to sound familiar?
Leveling the playing field
Apple doesn’t need to license iOS to other handset makers. Yes, Android is starting to look a lot like the Windows of the mobile era, but not because it’s licensed to third parties. The contexts and uses for handheld devices like music players and cell phones are far more limited than for PCs; hardware diversity is not driving Android sales. The magic formula is simple: quality + availability. Android is ascending in the market because it’s good, it’s available where people want to buy it, and it runs on the networks people want to use.
The current carrier situation may end up being a transient aberration in the long run, an inefficient market created by the huge fixed costs of building and running a wireless data network. But if the comparatively more mature (wired) telephone, cable television, and Internet service provider markets have taught us anything, it’s that the road to a more competitive marketplace for infrastructure services is a long and hard one. Carrier segmentation will be a fact of life for Apple for the foreseeable future.
There’s only one thing for it. Apple needs to get the iPhone on more carriers as soon as possible. Nowhere is this more important than in the US, where the iPhone is available on just a single carrier—one that’s decidedly not the market leader. The only way for Apple to eliminate the distribution and marketing advantage currently enjoyed by Android is to make sure that everywhere an Android phone is for sale, there’s an iPhone sitting right next to it that will work on the same network. Only then will Apple get a fair shot at selling based on the things it can actually control: the hardware and software of the phone itself. At that point, it can—and should—diversify its iPhone product line just like it did with the iPod in the last decade.
Epilogue: market share matters
On a recent podcast, John Gruber spent some time musing about the inherent worth and actual relevance of market share, noting that “you can’t cash checks with it” and suggesting that it might just be a convenient way for industry observers to “keep score.” It’s true that Apple only needs some reasonable share of the market to sustain its platform. The Mac has had a market share well below 10 percent for decades, and that’s been enough to ensure that developers will still write Mac applications and customers will pay enough for Mac hardware to fund the development of future models.
Furthermore, in the mobile market as in the PC market, Apple’s share of the profits is considerably ahead of its share of the revenues. Analogies to luxury car makers inevitably follow. “Hey, BMW has only 7 percent market share, right?” The idea is that Apple either can be or should be happy with just “the most profitable portion of the market.”
Well, rest assured, BMW is not content with its current share of the automotive market, and Steve Jobs’ Apple will not be satisfied with anything less than the biggest piece of the pie that it can possibly take, in terms of profits, revenues, and unit sales. With the iPod, Apple has proven that all of those numbers can be well above 50 percent—without compromising product quality.
In the mobile market, the goal is the same. Apple is playing to win.
This article originally appeared at Ars Technica. It is reproduced here with permission.