AAPL Earnings Report: Tim Cook's Instructive Response on iPhone Sales

During Monday's Apple Q1 2014 earning report, analyst Toni Sacconaghi at Sanford Bernstein asked Tim Cook a very tough, pointed question about the Mac versus iPhone growth. Mr. Cook's response was instructive.


The general question, an apparent zinger, consisted of a very logical series of sub questions, and it went like this:

If we look at your prior four quarters, fiscal 2013, Apple grew it's iPhone units about 20 percent. But the market grew in the forties [percent] ... the iPhone is going to grow at a fraction at what the market is ultimately going to grow at ... I know your belief and philosophy historically has been that you want to make the best product -- and that's the most important thing.

But in Macs, you've actually succeeded in making the best product and being able to gain share ... in 30 out of the last 31 quarters. But in iPhone, that is not happening. And so my question is, what is different about the smartphone market that is not allowing you to hold or gain unit share, despite, apparently, having the best product. And do you propose to do anything different going forward? I think it's great to have an aspiration ot make the best products, but I think that's in the spirit of growing at least in line or faster than the market.

Now that's one heck of a question, with attitude, all kinds of assumptions, weaving a story, dropping a bombshell, then suggesting that Apple may have to do something different. Tim Cook is on the spot here because this question characterizes, it would appear, the general feeling by observers that Apple isn't growing at some desired rate. That is, as usual, investor goals are often at odds with Apple's goals.

Mr. Cook's response is instructive.

Toni, as I've said before, our objective has always been to make the best, not the most. And we feel we're doing that. If you look at what we did this year, we announced two iPhones rather than one ... those items grew year of year.

If you look at the emerging markets, that I believe are key ... in Latin America, we grew at 76 percent, year over year, in the Middle East and Africa, we grew at 65 percent. In central and Eastern Europe, we grew at 115 percent. In China we grew at 20 percent, however, as you know we just added China Mobile, the largest carrier there.... In Japan iPhone units were up 40 percent...

In North America we did not do as well. This swayed our results. The North American business contracted somewhat, year over year.... It took us some about of time to build the mix that customers were demanding. As a result we lost units for part of the quarter relative to the world.

The other thing that happened in North America was that some carriers changed their upgrade policy. This affected last quarter and will have some effect of the current quarter. This affected some customers who were used to upgrading earlier than the 24 months would allow and stretched the time out. That's a major factor....

As I look at it, I feel very good about where we are.

Tim Cook went on talk about the prospects in China and  to suggest that revised numbers will change the picture, compared to what everyone is saying now.


So there are several elements here. First, unit share growth is not like a bathtub -- where you just keep adding water and the tub magically fills higher and higher. There are global complexities. Manufacturing issues. Long term philosophical issues. This Q & A session has to be looked at by attentive journalists rather than simply clamoring for more and more unit share.

Secondly, Mr. Cook so much as admitted that the original partition of 5c and 5s manufacturing was misjudged. It took some time for that mix to get sorted out in North America. It makes one wonder if the two phone release was a good idea.

Thirdly, the PC market is contracting while the smartphone market is growing. So it makes sense for a quality Mac to gain share, while even a quality iPhone is subject to Apple's vision and standards -- plus the effects of cut-rate competition. So Mr. Sacconaghi's analogy was imperfect.

In any case, this discussion was instructive. Apple just isn't going to jigger with the iPhone quality or formula to achieve the kind of fantasy growth investors demand. Even so, there is overall growth and fabulous revenues. These are the realities that Apple works with, and it's fairly clear by now that beating on Apple for something different, demanding specific kinds of growth, isn't going to be productive. That part deserves a rest.