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FT社评:呼唤“苹果杀手”
Leader_A maturing Apple still awaits the Apple-killer

2017-1-11 07:18| 发布者: 凡心| 查看: 153| 评论: 0

摘要: Even a decade after the iPhone launched, anyone declaring Apple a “mature” enterprise risks looking foolish. Yes, its 2016 revenue is expected to be down on 2015, when revenues hit a mind-bending $2 ...
Even a decade after the iPhone launched, anyone declaring Apple a “mature” enterprise risks looking foolish. Yes, its 2016 revenue is expected to be down on 2015, when revenues hit a mind-bending $235bn. Yet all the reasons to write off a resurgence of growth have been wheeled out before: the smartphone market is not expanding, especially at the top end where Apple has sequestered itself; competitors’ products are equally good or better, and cost less; Apple’s newest features are only tiny improvements. Perhaps these facts will finally bite in 2017. But rule out another reinvention at your own risk. That Apple car may drive off yet.

Still, it is undeniable that the company, at times, acts like a grown-up. It has been paying dividends for years, and repurchasing shares at a furious pace. The headlines of its last two earnings releases heralded — in the absence of higher phone and tablet sales — surging services revenues. This is a classic transition for ageing tech companies: from increasing the customer base to extracting more from each customer.

Last week Apple said that sales of apps on its iTunes store were up 40 per cent this year, to more than $20bn, with accelerating growth in China. This suggests that, even if Apple’s base of a billion or so devices never expands, the company could still grow — and perhaps even preserve its majestic 40 per cent operating margins. The key is keeping customers happy, or at least enough not to incur the nuisance of switching to another system of devices and applications.

That the most valuable company in the world can even contemplate another leg of growth is a testament to ingenuity, focus, and brand-building. Apple deserves all its accolades.

That said, it is worth asking whether it is a good thing, from the point of view of the world economy, that a company can have sold so much, at such high margins, for so long. Yes, other companies sell a lot of smartphones. None makes nearly so much money.

Twenty years ago, W. Brian Arthur published his prescient article “Increasing Returns and the New World of Business”, observing how information-driven businesses, so far from suffering the diminishing returns that old-fashioned bulk production businesses do, experience accelerating returns as they grew. Companies that capture leadership in a given niche become a standard on which other innovations depend, customers become habituated to their interfaces, and entry costs for competitors rise.

“A new product often has to be two or three times better in some dimension — price, speed, convenience — to dislodge a locked-in rival,” Mr Arthur wrote. Most importantly, the best increasing-returns businesses “link and leverage”, transferring locked-in user bases from one product (mobile internet, say) to another (mobile payments, perhaps).

Apple’s ability to lock, link, and leverage commands respect. Nonetheless, a more violent tech economy, in which giants like Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon suffered more acute pressure from hungry upstarts, might benefit consumers and stimulate growth. Increasing-returns companies have come to define the corporate landscape at a time of modest developed-world growth, diminished investment, stagnant productivity and stubbornly high corporate profit margins. This may be coincidental. Or it may be that technology has changed the competitive structure of the economy in ways that are not universally positive.

In any case, to the geeks out there, hard at work on an Apple-killer that is in all likelihood doomed to fail, know this: we are all rooting for you.

即便在iPhone上市10年之后,任何宣告苹果(Apple)是一家“成熟”企业的人,都有显得愚蠢的风险。没错,苹果2016年的营收预计将低于2015年,那年其营收达到不可思议的2350亿美元。不过,苹果无法再现增长的所有原因早就被提出过:智能手机市场不再扩大,尤其是在苹果自己选择的高端市场;竞争对手的产品已跟苹果同样好,甚至更好,而且价格更低;苹果的最新功能只是微小的改进。也许这些事实将在2017年终于产生严重影响。但是,要排除苹果将会又一次改头换面的可能性,你得自担风险。苹果汽车仍可能上路。

话虽如此,不可否认的是,苹果公司有时的行为像是成年人。该公司派发股息已有多年,还积极回购股票。从最近两份盈利报告看,该公司在手机和平板电脑销售未能提高的情况下,开启了服务营收激增的局面。这对于正在变老的科技公司而言是一种经典的转型:从扩大客户群体转向从每名客户赚到更多。

上周,苹果表示,随着中国市场增长提速,去年其iTunes商店的app销售额增加了40%,增至逾200亿美元。这似乎表明,即使苹果的10亿部左右设备的基数再也不增长,该公司的业绩仍有望增长,或许甚至会维持令人叹为观止的40%的营业利润率。关键在于让客户满意,或者至少足够满意,不至于做出投奔另一个系统的设备和应用这种烦人之事。

仅仅是这家全球最高市值公司有可能展望又一段增长期,就证明了苹果的独创性、用心专一和品牌建设。苹果收获的所有赞美都是应得的。

话虽这么说,一家公司在这么长时间内以如此高的价格卖掉如此多的产品,对世界经济而言是否是件好事,是个值得一问的问题。没错,其他公司也销售了大量智能手机。谁也没赚到这么多钱。

20年前,威廉?布莱恩?亚瑟(W. Brian Arthur)发表了他那篇颇具先见之明的文章《报酬递增与新的企业世界》(Increasing Returns and the New World of Business)。此文观察道,信息驱动型企业远非像旧式大规模生产企业那样遭受回报递减之苦,而是随着发展壮大而经历回报递增。在某一特定细分市场占据了领导地位的公司,成为了其他创新必须依赖的一个标准,客户逐渐习惯了它们的界面,竞争者的进入成本提高了。

“新产品经常必须在有些维度——价格、速度、体验——好上两至三倍,才能击败一个锁定市场的对手,”亚瑟写道。最重要的是,最优秀的回报递增企业要“建立联接并使用杠杆”,把已经锁定的用户群体从一种产品(比如移动互联网)转移到另一种产品(或许是移动支付)。

苹果在锁定、建立联接和利用杠杆方面的能力值得尊敬。然而,一家更具爆发力的技术公司——苹果、谷歌(Google)、Facebook和亚马逊(Amazon)等巨头都从饥饿的新贵那里感受到更尖锐的压力——或许会让消费者受益,并刺激增长。在一个发达世界增长缓慢、投资减少、生产率停滞不前和公司利润率异常高的时代,回报递增的公司却逐渐定义了企业界。这或许是巧合。也可能是,技术已改变了经济的竞争格局,而其方式并非全都是正面的。

无论如何,那些正努力研究一款(十分可能注定要失败的)苹果杀手的极客们,请记住这一点:我们都支持你们。

译者/何黎


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