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.
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。