HL Tech Biz Exclusive: Is Tim Cook's Apple Past Its Peak

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Following Apple’s first down quarter in over a decade and mixed reviews for the company’s recent Worldwide Developers Conference, an ominous question is making the rounds.

Has Apple peaked?

Ask four people this question, and you’ll get four different answers.

“Apple peaked when [former CEO Steve] Jobs died,” said venture capitalist and tech writer Dileep Rao. “No one has been able to succeed with Apple's business model except Jobs. Tim Cook is a nice guy (as we always say in Minnesota), but he is no Steve Jobs.”

Tech entrepreneur Jerome Hardaway had a different peak in mind – in 2001, after the company released it’s first iPod. “It showcased an ability to enter new markets with fresh ideas and a true understanding of the consumer."

“I would say Apple’s peak, innovation-wise, was following the launch of the iPhone in 2007,” said Sagi Gidali, co-founder and CPO of SaferVPN. “This product was unlike anything else seen in the mobile arena and truly revolutionized the role of cellphones and popularity of personal devices.”

Tech writer Tayven James points to a far more recent peak. “It came at the time of the iPhone 6 launch in September of 2014,” he said. “The months following Apple's 2014 Keynote event marked the most profitable in Apple's history. iPhone 6 sales numbers led to the high-water mark for Apple's stock value.”

So which is it? Did Apple peak the day it launched the iPod? Right before Jobs died?

Graphiq sites SpecOut and FindTheCompany teamed up to break down eight different ways of thinking about Apple’s peak, some more data-driven, others more anecdotal.

Perspective No. 1: Cook vs. Jobs

Perhaps the most common critique against the modern-day Apple — at least when it comes to assessing the company’s peak — matches Rao’s opinion. Namely, that the corporation was better off under Steve Jobs than Tim Cook.

Jobs was an innovator, Cook merely a supply chain manager, or so the argument goes. As such, fans of this perspective will argue that Apple was at its peak shortly before Jobs died.

The problem: Most of the financial metrics contradict this perspective, as we'll see in a few examples below.

Perspective No. 2: Stock Price

In contrast to Rao’s perspective is James’ focus on stock price. In the world of investing, stock price is arguably the best proxy for public opinion on a company. The higher the price investors are willing to pay, the more confident they are in the future of the business.

By this measure, Apple’s peak was quite recent: early 2015. The company had just recorded record sales during the 2014 holiday quarter, smashing analysts’ expectations with 74.5 million iPhones sold in just three months. That was nearly 50 percent more than the 2013 holiday quarter, which had also been a record.

Proponents of this perspective will point out that Apple’s stock price has more than doubled since Jobs’ death.

Perspective No. 3: Revenue

The stock market can be fickle, however, as investors react based on their expectations, rather than the raw dollars. As such, some might point to Apple’s quarterly revenue as the best way to measure Apple’s success over time.

Here, it seems Apple is doing about as well as it ever has, with $75-billion peaks during holiday quarters and $50 billion each quarter throughout the rest of the year. For context, that’s more than three times the revenue, on average, that Apple was making the quarter the iPad first launched in April 2010.

Perspective No. 4: Year-Over-Year Growth

Revenue skeptics might respond by pointing to Apple’s trajectory, rather than its raw totals. It’s one thing to make $50 billion; it’s another to grow revenue by 50 percent year over year.

Take a look at the same visualization, this time with year-over-year growth noted in the gray line. By this measure, Apple has been growing a lot more slowly — and sometimes declining — since mid-2012.

Apple’s single strongest quarter of year-over-year growth came in Q4 of 2010, when Apple grew revenue more than 100 percent year over year (note that these are fiscal quarters, so Q4 represents July through September). Part of this massive change is due to Apple’s inconsistent iPhone release months, which makes comparing year over year changes somewhat misleading prior to 2011, after which releases became more standardized.

Still, Apple maintained 50 percent year-over-year growth from early 2010 through mid 2012 — a remarkable feat, and enough to argue that Apple may have peaked during this time. This growth was largely fueled by the iPad, which launched in March 2010. The iPad created a whole new product category for Apple, and it sold even faster than the iPhone in its first few years of existence.

But iPad growth would plateau by 2014, which leads us to the next perspective.

Perspective No. 5: Health of Apple’s Three Major Product Lines

Despite the iPhone’s historic growth in 2015, the iPad had begun to decline, taking with it some of Apple’s luster and a bit of investor confidence.

From a strictly bottom-line perspective, the iPhone more than made up for the iPad’s decline in 2015. But a diverse product line can help insulate a business from disruption, and relying too heavily on the iPhone could be risky. With this in mind, Apple has arguably been in some form of decline since late 2013, thanks to the declining iPad.

Perspective No. 6: Pace of Innovative Product Launches

Speaking of the iPad, some — like Hardaway and Gidali — gauge Apple’s success by its frequency or quality of successful product line releases. Since Steve Jobs’ return to Apple in 1997, the company has released the iMac (1998), iPod (2001), MacBook (2006), Apple TV (2006), iPhone (2007), iPad (2010) and the Watch (2015).

Here, you could argue that Apple peaked around 2006 and 2007, when the company began three new product lines, including its most successful of all: the iPhone.

Still, which products truly count as breakthrough innovations? Does the Apple TV belong in the same breath as the iPad? Apple has often called its TV product a “hobby.” And what about all the products not mentioned here, from iTunes to the Magic Trackpad?

And finally, how do you measure iteration against innovation? Does Apple deserve more credit for the release of the brand new Apple Watch, or eight straight years of iPhone refinements? The former launched a whole new product line, but the latter has resulted in many times more sales.

Perspective No. 7: The Past

None of the products above even account for the early days of Apple, which revolutionized computing with the Apple II and Macintosh. Business-wise, Apple’s early years can’t compare to its 21st century record smashing. But in terms of influence, perhaps Apple’s peak came in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

Perspective No. 8: The Future

Finally, there’s the future. Perhaps Apple’s brightest days are still ahead. Rumors continue to swirl about a potential Apple Car, and the company has been suspiciously quiet about virtual reality, despite big moves in the space from rivals Facebook, Google and Microsoft. With billions in reserve, Apple could compete just about anywhere, given sufficient motivation.

Consider that Apple has never invested more in research and development, having grown the budget more than 30 percent for six years running. Clearly, the future is very much on the company's mind.

But can Apple really ever match the success that was the iPhone, and, temporarily, the iPad? Take Tim Cook’s own thoughts in a 2014 interview with the Wall Street Journal. Asked about Apple's slowing growth, Cook referred back to 2010 through 2012 — just after the iPad's release and during the iPhone's rapid rise.

“We were in hyper-growth, or whatever is above growth. We went from $65 billion to over $100 billion to $150 billion to $170 billion. These are historic, unprecedented numbers. I don’t know any companies adding growth at that level. So when you say $14 billion to $15 billion compared to those numbers, it’s clearly smaller and a smaller percentage, but, to put it in some context, that’s like adding three Fortune 500 companies in a year. I think that’s hard to say that’s not a growth company.”

In the end, Apple’s past success deserves some blame for the intense scrutiny the company garners today. Any recent, incremental growth tends to look small and underwhelming by comparison.

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