Notes on Apple's refresh

Reactions to Apple events are generally either 'that's crazy' or 'that's boring', and reactions to yesterday's were definitely on the 'boring' side. There's certainly a bit of housekeeping (new Apple watch bands, say), but actually, I think there are two things that are pretty important. 

Finally, the cheaper iPhone

People have been talking about cheaper iPhones for as long as there's been an iPhone. Starting with the iPhone 3G, Apple successfully harnessed itself to the operators' handset 'subsidy' model, and it then passed through the shift from embedded subsidies to unbundled hire-purchase deals without a hitch. But each year's new iPhone still starts at over $600 before that subsidy, and that still works its way through to the consumer in the form of higher monthly charges or up-front payments, and of course prepay (with no subsidy) is a large market in western Europe (and increasingly the USA) and the only significant model outside developed markets. 

So far, Apple has addressed this by selling models from the previous two years at discounts of $100 and $200, taking the entry price before subsidy down to $400 or so. In addition, the second-hand market for iPhones is strong (seemingly rather stronger than that for Androids of similar price), giving another way to increase the size of Apple's ecosystem, though of course providing no direct revenue. And Apple's move to offer its own frequent-upgrade plans gives another way to broaden the base. 

Public data for this has been scanty, but Apple's ASP stayed high enough that it was pretty clear it wasn't selling many of the old models, and yesterday Apple confirmed this, saying that it sold 30m '4" iPhones' (that is, the 5 and 5s) in 2015 out of 230m total iPhone units. 

The last time Apple looked at addressing this directly, the result was the iPhone 5C. Install-base data seems to show that this sold about as well as previous 'last year's model' phones at that price point, but no better - it didn't really change the story, and Apple didn't continue the strategy. It went back to just selling discounted older models again. 

Now we come to the iPhone SE. This is a very different strategy. The iPhone 5C was clearly a different, cheaper product. It looked different, coming in colours but having a bulkier case to no other user benefit and had a lower spec. It was very obviously a 'cheaper iPhone'. 

In contrast, the iPhone SE is effectively a smaller iPhone 6S at a lower price. It has almost all of the same components and specs, and even a better camera than the discounted-to-$500 iPhone 6. It uses a premium design (albeit from an older model). The only meaningful difference from the flagship is that it has a smaller screen and costs less. 

So, I'd suggest that the iPhone SE is not the 'cheap one' any more than the iPhone 6S is the 'cheap one' compared to the iPhone 6S Plus. It's the smaller one, but it's still a top-of-the-line phone. 

Hence, as the tweet at the beginning says, what Apple has really done is moved from selling older models at discounts with the 'proper' iPhone starting at $600, to starting the iPhone range at $400 and scaling up on screen size and price. 

There are a bunch of interesting second-order implications for this. By launching six months after the actual iPhone 6S Apple smooths out the supply chain and reduces cannibalization from people who really want the 'newest one', and probably gets better component prices. But it's still selling premium components instead of 2-year-old components at $400 instead of $600, so I'd expect a long discussion of margin implications at the next quarterly call. And this also points to how misguided it is to poke around in earnings releases from Apple's supply chain to work out iPhone sales. One can also wonder what happens in the next product cycle - presumably the iPhone 6 disappears, the 6S goes to $500 and the SE is refreshed, perhaps without a new name. Or does it go to $300? Certainly it'll be on the second-hand market at $200.  

But the key thing is that after 8 years, the iPhone range really now starts at $400, not $600 or more. With the 6 and 6 Plus Apple addressed screen-size as a reason to buy premium Android and their results are clear in Samsung's financials. Now it's going after price and the mid-range. $400 is still nowhere near the $150 or so that decent Android phones start at (let alone the entry price of $50 or less for one with very low specs), but this is still going to shake things up. 

Second, the iPads

Apple has sold over 300m iPads. It has 70-80% share of tablet traffic web share, and tablets are a double-digit share of web use. The users love them. But sales are slowly declining. 

To me, there are two linked issues here. First, tablets are essentially filling a PC use case - a large screen device that's not in your pocket all the time but that can do more - and that market is in decline as smartphones take over more and more of that use. Tablets are selling into a declining market as smartphones increasingly dominate. And second, the replacement rate for tablets, just as for PCs, is slow - PCs are around five years and tablets may be close to the same (it's still too early to say). A three or four year old iPad is just fine, especially if you don't carry it around with you. 

Apple has clearly had a v2 rethink around this, to try to drive greater switching from PCs (and Macs) both within that upgrade cycle and perhaps accelerating it. It has added the pencil and the keyboard (both pretty much the 'right' instance of each), added split-screen multi-tasking and pushed into productivity, both with OS features and the partnership with IBM, while Microsoft has helpfully also put Office (mostly - some elements such of charts are works in progress) onto the platform. It's trying to address the things that keep people on Windows or Mac - generally that one app or use case. Having started with the new larger iPad Pro last year, it's now rolled this strategy out to the 10" format. (It's not clear what happens to the Mini - this is now somewhat marooned between the 10" format and the iPhone Plus, and Apple may just keep it on as a convenient cheap entry point, rather like the iPod Touch.) 

Arguably, after the software changes and accessories, the remaining piece is the difficulty in making money selling iPad productivity apps - partly because of the free or near-free products from the industry giants. On this, I suspect the App Store is the subject of a broader conversation inside Apple. 

All of this sits within a broader generational shift in productivity, though. The iPad has great productivity stories - for example, Paper, Office, Box & Dropbox, Slack, Quip, OnShape, IBM or Adobe. But the real shift is around a move away from typing & filing and towards SaaS, cloud, AI and unbundling of Office itself. That is, you don't compete with PowerPoint or Excel by making better software for slides or spreadsheets. You compete by moving away from slides and spreadsheets. (For more discussion of this see here