Impressive as it is, Apple’s Services is still in the early days

Long known as an iPhone company, Apple has transformed itself in recent years to become less dependent on the iconic consumer gadget. I doubt the transformation stemmed from a desire to get rid of the association. Rather, the transformation is to respond to the consumers’ tendency to hold on to their devices longer and to keep the ecosystem strong as well as the products sticky. In FY 2014, Services was responsible for only 10% of Apple’s revenue. In FY2020, the figure doubled to 20%. It may not sound much, but it is given that we’re talking about a company of Apple’s size, stature and $250+ billion in annual revenue.

The growth of their Services is also reflected by the steadily expanding number of paid subscribers. In Q4 FY2020, Apple announced that they had 585 million paid subscribers and were well on track to finish the calendar year 2020 with 600 million subscribers. Only two years ago, the subscriber base stood 330 million as of Q4 FY2018.

Two days ago, Apple provided a few data points with regard to their services:

  • Developers have earned $200 billion through the App Store since 2008
  • Between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve in 2020, consumers spent $1.8 billion on digital goods and services on the App Store, with $540 million alone on New Year’s Day
  • Apple Music added 52 new territories and now has 70 million songs and 250,000 exclusive radio episodes
  • Apple TV App is “1 billion screens in over 100 countries and regions”
  • Apple Pay is available in 90% of stores in the US, 85% in UK and 99% in Australia
  • Apple Books has 90 million monthly active users
  • Apple Podcast is available in over 175 countries with programming in more than 100 languages
  • “More than 85 percent of iCloud users are protected with two-factor authentication”

I wish there would be more context for us to judge these numbers, but two data points specifically stand out for me. First of all, developers earned more during the Holiday Week between 24th Dec and 1st Jan in 2020 than they did in 2019. The App Store’s spending in 2020 went over $72 billion, easily dwarfing the $39 billion that Google Play had to offer. When consumers spend more on the App Store year after year, developers have more incentives to produce apps which, in turn, make the App Store even more vibrant. Plus, even though Android is on more devices than iOS, the App Store still generated more consumer spending, confirming the long observation on the market that Apple users are a more lucrative clientele for developers. If resources are constrained, why not focusing on where the money is?

Second, 85% of iCloud users enable two-factor authentication. Personally I only turn on the two-factor authentication for important accounts like my bank accounts, Gmail and iCloud. The figure provided by Apple indicates to me how iCloud users think about their account, implying a high degree of attachment and stickiness.

When it comes to Apple’s Services, I don’t consider them user-acquisition tools. Acquiring users is more like the job of the company’s legendary brand, marketing and hardware. I don’t think anyone switches from Android to iOS simply because they want to use either Apply Pay, Apply Books or Apple Podcast. Rather, Services keep users engaged and locked into the ecosystem. So far, these Services have done wonders for Apple and there is so much room to grow. Some s such as Apple Card, Apple TV+, Apple Fitness+ or Apple One are very new and limited to only a few markets. They are still in the development stage. Once they are further developed and introduced to more markets, Apple’s Services pie will grow bigger and their “overseas” customers will be even more locked in.

And then there are areas where Apple can potentially make inroads. The company has a knack for making small, incremental yet meaningful changes in complicated matters. It will not surprise me if they find a way to make our lives easier in areas such as our job, education or insurance. These offer plenty of opportunities for improvement and they are very personal; which is what Apple is all about. The company doesn’t even need to come up with paid services to generate more revenue. Even free services that can keep customers happy and locked in would already be valuable. Once customers are happy and locked in, the money will come later.

I heard and saw criticisms about Apple’s Services such as Apple TV+ or News+ or Fitness+. While some of those criticisms were warranted, it’s worth remembering that it’s rare to get something perfect at first try. Apple launched great and disappointing products before. Yet, the company is still here and among the top 5 richest companies in the world. The company is in the early days to grow their Services portfolio, trying, tweaking and expanding as they go along.

Disclaimer: I own Apple’s stocks in my portfolio

How big are AWS and Apple Services?

AWS and Services have gained increasing attention in recent years for their role in Amazon and Apple’s growth respectively. I gathered revenue data on both and compared it to the comparable figure of some famous brands. The comparison should put the size of AWS and Services in perspective. The figures were retrieved from the latest available annual reports of the companies.

The two growing business segments of Amazon and Apple generated more revenue than some of the global household names. In the past 6 years (when the data is available), the segments have grown impressively fast. According to my calculations, from 2013 to 2018, the CAGR of Apple Services and AWS is 18.22% and 52.66% respectively.

Apple’s strategic switch

Disclaimer: I do own a few Apple stocks, but it’s nothing major and this post is just to share my observation of Apple. As a fan of business strategy, I have been a fan of the company and interested in how it performs amid the concerns after the letter to shareholders on 2nd January 2019.

Yesterday, Apple announced their Q1 earnings. A few notable points from their announcement and earning call:

  • Apple no longer reports units sold across their business segments
  • Overall, Apple recorded $84.3 billion, down 5% year over year
  • Products gross margin was 34.3% and Services gross margin was 62.8%.
  • iPhone revenue dropped by 15% year over year
  • Services revenue in Q1 was $10.9 billion, a 19% YoY increase. Service revenue grew from $8 billion in calendar 2010 to $41 billion in calendar 2018, allegedly on pace to reach $50 billion in 2020
  • Mac revenue was up 9% while iPad revenue was up 17%
  • Wearables, home and accessories revenue grew by 33% to $1.8 billion
  • There are 50 million paid Apple Music subscribers, up from 40 million reported in June 2018
  • Apple reported a base of 900 million installed iPhones, out of 1.4 billion active devices in total from Apple
  • There are 360 million paid subscriptions across Services portfolio, an increase of 120 million versus a year ago.
  • This quarter saw 1.8 billion transactions through Apple Pay, twice the volume recorded in the same quarter a year ago
  • In Germany, there are more Apple Pay activations in one week than for Android in one year
  • “Revenue from cloud services continues to grow rapidly with year-over-year revenue up over 40% in the December quarter. And readership of Apple News set a new record with over 85 million monthly active users in the three countries where we’ve launched the United States, the U.K., and Australia”.
  • Ending Q1 2019, Apple cash stands at $244 billion while net cash is at $130 billion

I am a big believer in the notion that business models need to be adapted to the changes in the business environment. No business model could be effective while staying still over the years, especially in the fast-changing world that we live in today. Apple should be no exception and from the numbers reported, it seems to me that they are making changes.  

For years, the bulk of Apple’s business has come from hardware which is differentiated by its exclusive software, especially in the case of iPhone. iPhone revenue has made up approximately 60% of Apple’s turnover. However, the luxury smartphone market has reached the maturation point. iPhone unit sale growth has been either minimal or flat for quarters. Greater China market, which makes up 20% of their iPhone revenue, has boasted challenges to Apple, particularly in 2018. Their iOS isn’t as appealing to Chinese users as it is to users in other parts of the world while competitors such as Huawei and Xiaomi offer alternatives with more or less same features at a lower price. The macroeconomic conditions in China and the trade war aren’t helpful either.

The growth in iPhone revenue has come largely from the price hike which lengthens the upgrade cycle and puts a limit on how much Apple can reach out to potential users. Not everyone can afford those pricey phones. Lowering the prices isn’t the solution. Firstly, Apple is a luxury brand. Lowering prices may leave significant damages to its brand power. Secondly, cheaper phones will require substantial changes to its operations, including supply chain, distribution and Sales & Marketing.

All the signs point to the fact that too much dependence on iPhone is no longer sustainable for Apple moving forward. Enter Services.

Services has been a bright spot amid concerns over iPhone revenue for the past 2 or 3 years, growing at a 20% annual clip. Put that in perspective, their Services revenue this quarter alone is $10.9 billion, almost equal to Netflix’s revenue in 3 quarters in 2018 while Facebook Q3 revenue was about $13 billion. Instead of making money from devices, Apple is betting on users keeping devices longer and paying consistently and more for services. And why not? If the users tend to hold on to devices longer, it makes sense to generate more money from their activities. Plus, margin from Services is substantially higher than that of Products.

And they have been doing a good job. Apple Pay transactions reached 1.8 billion this quarter, 100% YoY increase. Revenue from cloud went up by 40%. The number of paid subscriptions grew by 50% year over year and Apple Music has added 10 million users, reaching the 50 million mark and achieving a 25% growth, since June 2018.

As of June 2017, developers earned $70 billion from App store since its launch in 2008. As of January 2019, the figure went up to $120 billion. Moreover, we are about to see their investment in original content as their streaming service is reportedly going to be live this April.

In summary, Apple seems to be heading to the right direction strategically in my opinion, given the changes in the environment they are operating in. I think the following guidance in the next few quarters will continuously be lower than analyst expectations as the reduction in iPhone revenue may not be sufficiently offset by the growth in Services yet. There is a chance that Apple won’t have the same revenue level as they had at the peak of iPhone-dominated era.

Nonetheless, I think the company is far from the demise alleged by some after a letter to shareholders on 2nd January 2019. They generated $84 billion in revenue and almost $20 billion in net income in 90 days! Instead, the change to be a Services company may be better for the company’s health.