Earlier today Jason Calacanis sent out his latest edition of his Launch email newsletter with a bunch of alternative suggestions for what Apple should do with their $70B+ warchest. Apparently earlier this week a Wall Street analyst made the stupid suggestion that Apple should pay a dividend (which in my opinion as well as Jason’s would be a massive mistake by Apple and a negative signal to the market).
While some of Jason’s suggestions are good ones, a few are, I think, mistakes as well. Jason also misses the biggest and most valuable moves Apple could (and is) making with their warchest – namely ongoing investments into their supply chain efficiency and scale as well as the highly profitable investments they have been making in opening up additional Apple stores (which have the highest per sq. ft sales of nearly any retailer anywhere in the world).
To be specific I think Jason’s suggestion of offering a massive discount on the iPad for the educational market is a mistake (and based on a bunch of faulty ideas). Any discount beyond what Apple already offers if big enough will be gamed and used to fuel resellers (i.e. students and others buying at 60% and selling at 30% off on eBay). Apple is relatively unique amongst all consumer electronics businesses in rarely offering any sizable discounts and likewise they are unique in being amongst the most profitable of consumer electronics companies. I don’t think this is coincidental. Apple maintains strict price controls on their small set of goods for sale and in place of deep discounts offers new, better products on a regular schedule as well as bundles of goods for the educational market (notably this year they offered $100 iTunes credit in place of their more traditional offer of a free iPod to students). Apple has massive volume without massive discounts – and they already do have millions of tablet users (if not quite yet 100M they are selling iPads nearly as fast as they can make them) and they do have well over 100M iOS devices (a lot more).
I also don’t fully agree that Apple should pay 100% out to developers. Apple’s 30% does more than just pay Apple. It covers credit card payment fees, it pays (small) affiliate fees and it means that the App store (and iTunes) are viable, more than self-sustaining businesses. This rigor is good for Apple. It also helps curb, a bit, the general downward pressure on prices (since most businesses are bad at setting prices Apple’s floor of $0.99 for apps which aren’t free is a good thing). I think that the Mac App store as well as the iPad have started to slowly shift sales off of the $0.99 price point to higher prices which is better for developers. In-App purchases also have been very successful for many developers. Apple could, perhaps, waive fees on certain CLASSES of sales – for example perhaps paying out a higher percentage on in-app purchases of CONTENT (magazine subscriptions, music, videos) while retaining the 30% on the sale of apps and app functionality. Sure the line between content and app can be blurry but I think this could help grow the app market even further (and let Amazon as well as many music companies turn back on sales of content inside of apps). Apple could also waive or eliminate any requirement to clear content sales (with a process to ensure that if an app claims to be for all ages it doesn’t offer adult content – if it does the app could face a penalty)
Apple is about to “pull a gmail” with the pending launch of iCloud, though the actual figures for size are a bit more complicated than Jason’s proposed 50GB. Apple will be offering 5GB for free with additional space available. However since Apple has stated that music and photos don’t count (if you sync them to the cloud) it is a bit hard to compare directly to Dropbox etc. See The Next Web’s coverage in August for some more details on the pricing.
I like Jason’s suggestion for buying Boingo Wireless and for investing widely in a nationwide (and ideally global) network of free (for Apple devices at a minimum) hotspots. This make sense though Apple would likely need to invest more than Jason estimates to buy wireless hotspots Internationally. Also there is a valid argument for paid hotspots in meeting the business needs of the venues where those hotspots are located – but perhaps Apple could find creative alternatives to compensate venues and minimize freeloading (or overloading of a hotspot from neighbors). This is less of a concern in locations such as airports where most people are passing through, but it is an issue in urban venues where people may live upstairs or next door. It is also a case that wifi hotspots get used for less-than-legal purposes or just for uses that tie up significant bandwidth – such as large downloads. Apple, however, does have a business need to promote high bandwidth use cases (such as downloading large OS updates, downloading purchased apps and movies, streaming content from iCloud etc) so Apple might have a business reason to upgrade the wifi networks. If Apple does this purchase they might also face carrier pushback (though since Boingo likely purchases bandwidth from some of those carriers this may be muted).
While I see the argument for Apple investing $10B in building their own search engine to compete with Google (Jason suggests offering this without ads – I don’t see why that would be so compelling however as ads against search is now a clear and interesting business). But that isn’t, actually, hitting Google where they are strongest.
What Apple SHOULD do if they really want to all out compete with Google is invest $10B (or more) in building out their iADs platform into a valid competitor for Doubleclick. This would be hard but the profits in building up a valuable ad serving business on a massive Internet (and mobile Internet) wide scale could be immense. This would require likely some highly creative purchases as well as deep investments into core technology and into a massive salesforce and agency outreach. Apple might start by looking to buy parts of Yahoo and AOL (but likely not all of both companies) though there is an equally strong argument that the industry needs new approaches not the same old approaches.
My personal suggestion beyond the billions in supply chain investments which Apple is already making – buying up capacity and funding the building of new plants and manufacturing capacity for the components that go into Apple’s devices would be to look at the following additional investment options.
- Consider, if Chinese law permits it, the full purchase of Foxconn. Yes this would mean adding 1M+ employees to Apple’s books and yes this would mean that Apple would “own” the working conditions. But it would further ensure that Apple fully owns their supply chain and manufacturing process in a manner that few other companies do at the moment. This might, however, have downsides. Not least of which is that it could limit their ability to use new suppliers in the future and it could have major legal hurdles (as Chinese law may not permit the foreign ownership of big Chinese firms). Baring this Apple should continue to invest in improvements in the working conditions of their manufacturing processes and look at ways to diversify their manufacturing into other countries than just China (to minimize future supply chain disruption risks). If any company in the world could figure out how to profitably manufacture in the US (or other “Western” countries once again it is likely Apple).
- Many pundits have suggested that the next logical move for Apple is to offer an Apple TV. I don’t think this is bold enough. I think Apple should look at investments in a home gaming console – one that builds on the Apple TV (and iOS) but which is a full fledged competitor to the XBox, Playstation and Wii (including the next generations of each of those consoles when they come out). One possible approach which would be “different” would be for Apple to buy OnLive which would likely cost $2B or more especially if they also purchased the related Reardon Companies whose Shannon’s Law breaking wireless technology if it works and can be deployed could go far beyond Onlive (or Boingo) in applications and value to Apple. Onlive isn’t riskless in the least but if Apple purchased them and made a massive investment in growing them as well as in adding Apple TV capabilities to the Onlive box (and leveraging Onlive’s successes in being integrated into other devices) it could be a really really big shift in the gaming landscape. And if, as has been rumored, OnLive becomes more than just a PC (as in Windows) gaming platform this shift could be even larger. The potential in the Onlive model exists for games that run on hardware that dwarfs that of any modern (or even future) console system – while displaying on today’s laptops and TV’s.
- Apple should invest in “getting” Social. For all that Apple is design focused the one area of modern design they haven’t cracked is Social. The deep Twitter integration into the Apple platform that is coming is a good starting point but it shouldn’t be the end game. Apple should invest in ways to leverage their massive brand value as well as deep consumer relationships and touchpoints into a real, engaged and valuable social experience. Already iTunes (and the credit cards and credits in iTunes) represents a massive network of users – albeit one that hasn’t been socially engaged – yet. Ping doesn’t count. Apple could and I think should make some bold moves to get Social. They could buy some social assets on the cheap (MySpace for example) and work on migrating those social experiences to better run and better designed Apple experiences. However a counter argument could be made that Apple’s lack of “Social” has left room for massive innovation by iOS developers leveraging Apple platforms as well as the web in building new social experiences and that any move by Apple might disturb this valuable ecosystem.
- Apple should invest in the Enterprise. Apple’s Enterprise story is far larger than most pundits understand – the iOS and iPad platform is seeing massive corporate deployments all the time and I suspect IT departments everywhere are seeing greater demand for Apple devices as alternatives to PC platforms (and as the price competitiveness and performance of Apple devices keep growing the IT arguments against Apple computers in the Enterprise diminish rapidly). The shift of many corporate software platforms from internal networks to SAAS (software-as-a-service) also minimizes the need for a uniform enterprise platform. That said, Apple’s Enterprise story could be far larger – they could offer more from their server offerings and they could invest in SAAS offerings themselves (Salesforce however might not be a great fit though it might be worth exploring).
I think as Apple continues to grow they will also, soon, be competing with some companies few pundits expect them to be competing with. Game companies for example (though the iOS devices already are seen as winning against dedicated portable game consoles) but also more Enterprise and niche companies such as Salesforce, Cisco and others. I could see Apple, perhaps via an investment in/purchase of a company such as Boingo and/or Rearden Companies suddenly being a competitor of many networking companies. Apple might also purchase additional chip companies to further control the supply chain for their devices – a company that makes radios and other networking chips for devices from the iPhone to the iPad to the Macbook Air might be a very logical (and relatively small) purchase for Apple to make in the near future. If Apple also purchases an IP shop such as Reardon Companies they might further compete via offering better devices for a better price than a company such as Cisco can offer today.
These are my suggestions – what are yours?