2009/03/14

Trouble in (AAPL) paradise?

Henri Rousseau, Le reve (de Yadwiga?)
Last year my beloved blackberry was stolen... at gunpoint! That was the single most lopsided cost and benefit equation (for all involved) I have ever been a part of in my life... but that's not today's story. The story is, I decided to replace it with a second generation iPhone (with 3G and GPS), which had just come out. I'm not about to write a product review, God knows enough has been written about the iPhone. I'll just sya it's a really cool device.

But there's one aspect that doesn't seem to be talked about at all. A few weeks later I went to Ethiopia, and coincidentally again, I got one of the very first 3G SIM cards in the country. Amazing, the coolest phone and the fastest wireless network, woohoo. Except... there was no crack to unlock the 3G iPhone! So I had to carry two phones, one to make calls, and the iPhone for my address book etc. Second, my MacBook pro doesn't have a modem! And of course, who remembers to take an extra modem with them? Thankfully I had an old IBM Thinkpad, which has a built-in modem, so I could get on the Internet. The point is that the two Apple products I had were unusable in the third world. Whereas their competitors products (IBM and Blackberry in this case) are perfectly usable in those same conditions.

When I came back, a few weeks later, I was given an HTC G1 Android. Again many people have written comparing the two, but the thing that immediately struck me as the most important in comparing the two is a very basic point. The Android doesn't assume you have a computer. Everything is over the air, your contacts, applications, OS updates etc. are all updated/synced wirelessly. Whereas the iPhone requires that you have a computer, and a pretty powerful one at that (it has to be able to run iTunes on Windows or Mac OS X). To use an iPhone, you have to not only buy the phone, you must also already have a $1,000-$2,000 computer at home. If you live in the first world, that's a perfectly valid assumption, no problem. But it means that Apple's total market is a few hundred million people in the first world. This is true of Apple products in general, but is even more true of the iPhone which is a hugely important piece of that company's future. For comparison, Android's market is those people, plus the other 3 billion people in the world who can afford a $200 phone but not a $2,000 computer.

Then few months ago I read a great blog post (unfortunately I can't find the url to link) which argued that because Apple's marketing has been based on "coolness" and "exclusivity", once a device reaches a critical mass of users, the marketing starts defeating itself. Same psychology which limits the lifespan new fashion or of "hip" nightclubs: exclusivity is key to success, and eventually when the B & T crowd can get in, it's no longer cool.

Add to that the phenomenal success of iPhone sales so far, and you can only conclude that pretty soon, it might, just might saturate its potential market, much sooner than you would expect. There's some evidence this is already happening with the iPod. And the iPhone has more formidable competitors and more complicated market dynamics than the iPod.

Recall what happened with personal computers, Apple invented the category and dominated it with a unique approach until the mid 80s. But as the overall market grew from millions to billions of users, they peaked and ended up stuck at well under 5% market share, as cheaper and uglier IBM PC clones took the other 95+%. On the other hand, in the last 10 years, Apple has pulled off several bet-the-farm miracles. Not just the invention of the iPhone, and the iPod, but also two earlier huge gambles: switching from PowerPC to Intel CPUs in the Mac, and switching from the old Mac OS to Unix-based OS-X, both were incredible successes of business and engineering that defied the conventional wisdom completely.

So this is a tricky one. It could go either way. But I'm going to go out and a limb and predict that 2008 was the year of Apple's peak. Short AAPL.