The State of Apple – Where Is The Excitement? - Sat, May 26, 2018
We are coming up to the week before WWDC, which starts on Monday, June 4, 2018, and I have been thinking about the “State of Apple.” How is it doing? As a longtime investor in Apple, I am obviously thrilled with its financial results and its stock price. Recently it reached an all time high of $190/share and it is now trading slightly above $188/share with a market capitalization of $926.7 billion dollars. Obviously investors are thrilled and are still bullish about how Apple will be doing financially. Among other things, the Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffet, recently increased Berkshire Hathaway’s investment in Apple and it is now one of the largest shareholders. Buffet is one of the most successful stock market investors, and that is why he is one of the richest person in the world.
But while Apple is really successful financially, something does not feel right for me. I don’t feel the excitement that I usually felt in the past when WWDC was approaching. In the past, I felt that WWDC was Christmas in the summer. Apple would release some application or some new IOS or Macs OSX system that had incredibly interesting features that made you feel Apple was pushing the human race forward into the future. In the past, Apple would announce a new software application that was so interesting and exciting that I could not wait to try it out. That is why for many years I participated in Apple’s Developer program. I joined mainly so I could check out Apple’s beta programs and apps. I just could not wait until fall when Apple would generally release the software to the public. Also in the past, Apple would announce some new hardware at WWDC. Many moons ago the new iPhone model would be announced at WWDC. But then Apple switched to announcing the new iPhone models in the fall.
I am also apprehensive about how exciting Apple’s WWDC will be this year because the few interesting things that Apple has announced in the last few years are overshadowed by the zillions of devices released by all sorts of companies. Of the devices Apple released in the last few years, I am really wowed by the AirPods. I use them all the time. They are not perfect, but they greatly improved how I listen to audio from my iPhone and iPad. The main thing is I am no longer hampered by wires and cords. And Siri works well on the AirPods. Of course, I am impressed with the iPhones getting better every year. But they don’t wow me. I expect that the cameras in the iPhone will get better and the processors will get more powerful. I expect that the iPhone’s screen will get better. Other devices haven’t wowed me. The HomePod has really nice sound, but the controls aren’t great (I can’t fine tune the audio volume among other things) and Siri isn’t great on it. The best thing about the HomePod is how well it recognizes one’s voice even when whispering.
In recent years I purchased AppleTVs, the upgraded ones after purchasing the 1st AppleTV many years go. They are nice and better than prior models. But gaming on the AppleTV has never really taken off. I have two kids, ages 12 and 13, and they never got into gaming on the AppleTV. They love games on their iPads and iPhones, but they never got into it on the AppleTV. As for the Macs, I guess I am wowed by the iMac Pro, but the problem is its hard for me to justify $5k or more. My 27-inch iMac from 2010 is running well. And if I want to edit videos, I can borrow one of the 2017 13-inch MacBook Pros that I purchased for my kids last Christmas. And even those computers are nice, but not a wow-factor. Among other things, there is a controversy about the keyboards on those computers. And while we haven’t had a problem with broken keys, I don’t like the keyboard action. It is too shallow. The keyboard on the Apple SmartCover for the 12-inch iPad Pro is better.
Speaking of iPads, I like them and use them heavily. I have the original 12-inch iPad Pro and use it all the time. And I would like to purchase the newer model because of the better screen and better refresh rate for the Apple Pencil, but I can’t justify getting it as the 1st generation 12-inch iPad Pro still works really well. In fact, I am writing this post on that device using the Byword app. I am bullish about the iPads future. I think Apple’s release of a $300 iPad that also works with the Apple Pencil will get more schools to adopt that device and also get more everyday people to use the iPad as their main computing device or as an auxiliary computing device. My 88-year old mother has long used an iPad as her main computing device, for surfing the internet with the Safari browser, or reviewing messages, photos and videos of the kids.
I am sure that Apple will continue to iterate on the iPad, as it does with the iPhone. Those devices will continue to get faster processors and better cameras. Also, at some point, they will get faster cellular speeds as 5G cellular services role out. And as in the past, Apple will add new sensors. Now if you could transport me 5 years from now I would be floored by the Apple iPhone and iPad models available then. The problem is that getting from here to there requires incremental steps. I am sure in Apple’s labs and internal strategic meetings they have a road map for where in 5 years Apple will be with those devices. And I am sure if I could peak at those plans I would say “wow” and be blown away. But I am pretty sure that next week I won’t be blown away. And then after I learn of the incremental improvements next week, I won’t be blown away at next year’s WWDC. What has happened is that during the last 10 years, I have gotten used to the incremental march forward of technology. Mind you, the increments are much bigger. One increment change in technology this year that Apple has put in the iPhone and iPad, compared to last year, is really like an incredible leap forward compared to the incremental change in technology that Apple had back in the mid–1990s. Can you even remember the changes in a Macintosh from 1995 to 1996?
Rather than by Apple, I am wowed today by the zillions of devices that are coming out that are cheap and innovative. For example, earlier this week, I ordered the Wyzecam (version 2), which that company sells for a mere $19.99 plus shipping costs. This tiny cube-like device has a 1080p Full HD camera which can stream through the internet to a Wyze app on your iPhone or iPad, and has motion tagging and night vision with no service cost and no need to purchase an SD card. You can purchase an SD card if you don’t want the internet streaming service and just record locally and also have stop time lapse shots. But it works well even without an SD card. It has a speaker in it and a microphone so you can listen in to the audio as well as watching streaming video from where you placed that camera. And you can talk through the speaker to anyone near the camera through your Wyze app. What blows me away is how cheap this device is and how well it works for that price. The people who created this worked at Amazon, so they know something about impressing consumers. Thus the low price for decent quality. But the concept that for a low price I can install video and sound monitors in all sorts of places is kind of mind-blowing.
Similarly, I was blown away several years ago, and also in recent years with updates, by the Raspberry Pi computer made by the Raspberry Pi Foundation. Basically, for a price as low as $35 or even $5 you can get a computer microprocessor with ports and sensors. People have created all sorts of interesting projects with these little devices. I used a Raspberry Pi to create an ad blocker on our family WiFi network at home so that anyone using our WiFi can automatically have ads on the internet blocked when they use a browser. And other than the cost of a $35 Raspberry Pi, this service is essentially free. You download the PiHole software onto your Raspberry Pi, and hook it up to your local network and boom, that is it, you have an ad-blocker for everyone on your network.
I used another Raspberry Pi to solve a problem. I have at home a Brother laser printer that is not AirPrint-enabled. I connected a Raspberry Pi to that printer by usb connection, then downloaded some software and drivers to the Raspberry Pi, and now all our Apple devices, mainly iPhones, iPads and Macs, can AirPrint to the laser printer.
I am also blown away with the crazy advances in drones that the Apple-like company DJI undertakes. The price of these drones and their abilities are extremely impressive. Similarly, I am impressed with the advancement of personal mobility devices like electric skateboards, and the advances that Boosted Board have made in creating some of the best electric skateboards.
Whenever I see devices like these, the Wyzecam, the Raspberry Pi, the DJI drones, the Boosted Boards, I sometime wonder why didn’t Apple come out with something like that. And then I think, of course Apple cannot do that. Apple’s finances require it to produce products that it can sell to a mass market and charge at least a 30% margin. Apple can’t experiment with releasing devices that have a small market that have a small margin. From a business perspective, it makes no sense for Apple. Such efforts would distract its engineers and more importantly impact Apple’s stock price and financial statement. That is because Apple’s stock prices is tied to its revenue growth and maintaining its large profit margin.
But maybe there is a way that Apple could tinker with devices that are low margin and might not at first sell to a mass market. Remember, years ago, when it first released the AppleTV, Apple called it a hobby and did not break it out on its financial results as it was such a small part of revenue. Why cannot Apple pursue more hobbies? What if Apple embraced the 20% model that Google has. That model allows Google employees (i.e. engineers) to spend 20% of their work time pursuing projects they find interesting. Many services that Google launched have come out of those efforts. Why not allow engineers at Apple to tinker with releasing innovative devices with low margins and smaller markets? I guess executives at Apple would worry that releasing such devices could hurt Apple’s brand. Apple is known for releasing polished products and maintaining secrecy until launch. Apple is know also for its premium products. If Apple engineers released various experimental devices that were cheap, it could hurt Apple’s brand. But what if Apple carefully rebranded that effort as something experimental that was apart from Apple’s regular brand. Apple could give it a name and call it the “Beta Hardware Program.” Apple could also tell its engineers to try to create projects that further Apple’s services. For example, there are devices that act as buttons to trigger HomeKit functions. You can hack an Amazon Dash button to work with services like IFTTT and even as a HomeKit trigger. Apple’s HomeKit service is competing with Amazon’s Echo service and Google’s Home service. If Apple released all sorts of devices that were cheap and worked well with HomeKit it would help HomeKit to dominate that market. Similar, Apple is competing with Spotify as well as Google Music and Amazon Music to become the dominant music streaming service. What if Apple released all sorts of cheap devices that have quality and work well with Apple Music and HomeKit? Wouldn’t that help Apple Music overtake Spotify? The AppleHome Pod is too expensive to count as such a device. Not enough people are going to pay $350 for a HomePod.
What I am proposing goes against what Apple had done to become the most valuable company in the world. But undertaking such efforts that allow its engineers to release cheap and innovative devices could help Apple engineers’ morale. Let the engineers experiment and release some devices. It will not only raise the morale for engineers to tinker and release devices, but it also could then make us consumers go “WOW” when something truly crazy is released. Apple, make me go “Wow” on WWDC’s first day this year.