If you go by the biz pub headlines, the iPhone is suffering. It's always suffering. In the old days, it was perpetually going to be late, or constrained, or facing weak demand. But, a few years ago, when I and others called them out on it, and it blew up spectacularly, there was a shift in strategy. From big, sketchy reports to kind of slow jamming the neg.
The Wall Street Journal, in particular, seems unable to print the word iPhone anymore without some weird glitch in their auto-correct system changing it to declining iPhone, lackluster iPhone, flagging iPhone, weak iPhone, stalling iPhone, faltering iPhone, slumping iPhone, slowing iPhone, waning iPhone, sputtering iPhone, down-turning iPhone, business damaging iPhone, woes threatening iPhone, troubled iPhone… And that's just over the last six months of their thesaurus subscription.
It almost seems designed to make you think no one wants the iPhone any more when, in reality, it reflects so many people having wanted and gotten the iPhone, that both the business and technology crossed the chasm from early, explosive growth to maturity in a decade flat.
Sure, you can play some games with gimmicks and experimental form factors, or run at no or below margin, but that burns out your base or your business rather than continuing to build strong customer relationships and sustainable product lines.
Which is why, I think, what I've been saying for the last several years is proving true: Once you've built up your primary business, you can then use that platform to build up everything else.
The iPhone, despite not selling as many units as it did before a billion people had bought them, is still slowly growing as a platform. But, more than that, everything from the Apple Watch and AirPods to Apple Music and Apple Pay.
Yes, iPhone revenue was down 9% from the same quarter last year, but everything else was up to such a degree total revenue actually still grew by 1.8%.
Yes, Apple has largely proven itself capable of growing beyond the iPhone. This means, of course, Wall Street now has to figure out how to project nervousness over far more diversified successes.
Highlights from Apple's Q4, 2019 conference call with CEO Tim Cook and CFO Luca Maestri, include the announcement that Apple Card, which they're calling the most successful card launch in history, will soon let customers buy a new iPhone and pay it off over 24 months at zero percent interest — and still get 3% cashback, because Apple purchase.
Personally, I'm still waiting for Apple Card and Apple Pay Cash to start moving into additional geographies, but along with the iPhone Upgrade Program, the idea of iPhone as a service remains compelling.
I'd love to see subscription AirPods and other products as well. Pay monthly, get new products annually, feed a refurbished secondary market and ensure responsible recycling of what can be and disposal of what can't, and you have a better business for Apple and less digital graveyards accumulating for customers.
iPhone 11, as many of us expected, is proving the most popular of the new iPhones. The same was true last year with the iPhone XR, but I think Apple was smart to change up the pricing and the branding. Always make people feel like they're getting more for more, not that they're getting less for less.
iPad was up 17%, which probably reflects just how strong Apple's current lineup is, from the $329 entry-level model which keeps getting better and better, to the new mid-level Air and Mini, to the really strong iPads Pro right at the top.
And, I think that shows, despite some stumbles in the middle years, the iPhone platform still has a halo, and when Apple can understand the upgrade cycle and deliver a compelling lineup, the market responds.
There wasn't as much to talk about with the Mac because there hasn't been as much to talk about with the Mac. Last year, by the end of August, we had updated MacBook Pros and all-new MacBook Airs and Mac mini.
We got spec bumped MacBook Pros and iMacs earlier this year, and a preview of the all-new Mac Pro back in June, but we're still waiting on whatever is next for the MacBook Pro, and to see if Apple can really keep the MacBook Air and Mac mini updated on a yearly basis. Likewise, the iMac Pro is going on two years without an update.
The Mac was still super profitable and, like the iPad, more than half the people buying them were first time buyers, which is great. But, Apple has really been winning back the faithful over the last year or so and I really hope they close out 2019 just as strongly in that regard.
Wearables, which is what Apple calls Watch, AirPods, and Beats, grew over 30%. ECG functionality, which faces region-by-region regulatory hurdles, is now available in 32 regions.
A whopping three-quarters of Apple Watch buyers were new to the product as well, which is something I think tech pundits still keep missing amid their annual should-you-upgrade-annually spiel. Unlike the billion-big iPhone market, there's still a huge untapped market for Apple Watch. And it'll be interesting to see how the $199 Apple Watch 3 addresses that.
Also, the new AirPods Pro.
Nothing much was reported on home and accessories, but that deserves its own video in the near future.
Then, there are services. Those were up 18%.
I think there are still some legitimate challenges and criticisms over some of the aspects here, including revenue from Google for default search engine placement, and the continued abuse of App Store subscriptions by a subset of unscrupulous apps and developers.
But, when you look at how well existing services like Apple Music, iCloud, and Apple Pay are doing — which is now in 49 markets — to the just-launched News+, Apple Arcade, and the about-to-be-launched TV+, and stalwarts like AppleCare, and it's getting harder and harder to say Apple just doesn't get services.
They get them. And they're investing in them, including bundling a free year of TV+ to hardware services, and for students with Apple Music subscriptions. And, hopefully, more bundles to come.
We can all argue about subscription fatigue in the era where each media category is essentially flattened down to one small monthly, but subscription management fatigue is real and something platform companies like Apple can help centralize and improve.
And that goes beyond subscriptions as well. When you step back and stop looking at each of these businesses as separate businesses, and look at them as what I think they really are — pieces of a more singular puzzle being carefully put into place, that I think things get really interesting for the future. Including the lackluster, flagging, weak, stalling, faltering, slumping, slowing, whatever else more myopic narratives want to call it. More on that soon.
Note: Congratulations to Nancy Paxton, retiring director of investor relations at Apple, on her 93rd and last earnings call. Yours has been the voice that welcomed us and sent on our way for so many years, so it's only right and good that we welcome you to your retirement and send you our very best wishes as you go on your way.