Apple brought all its usual glamour to the unveiling of its latest iPhones 12 yesterday. There was breathless exclamation over the new colors. There were speeches about chip speed. Then there’s the less breakable ceramic cover. And don’t think a LiDAR is only for those self-driving cars made by Waymo. The new Pro line of iPhones also have it now. The LiDAR will boost augmented reality (AR).
The real punch was the new 5G wireless speeds and here is where the problem lies. For the first time, Apple and iPhone are ahead of the foundational technology.
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Steve Jobs warned against the danger of being too early. “Things happen fairly slowly, you know. They do. These waves of technology, you can see them way before they happen, and you just have to choose wisely which ones you’re going to surf. If you choose unwisely, then you can waste a lot of energy, but if you choose wisely, it actually unfolds fairly slowly. It takes years.”
Jobs was referring to when he waited for two years for broadband. When it finally arrived, he jumped into the window of opportunity with the iPod. Countless others moved earlier than Apple, producing their own MP3 players. They all failed miserably. Before the 2000s, music sharing was possible—on Napster. But it took hours to download an album. With connectivity that poor, even the best-designed hardware made for hopelessly sluggish downloading. Jobs was waiting for the inevitable improvement of broadband to materialize.
Cut to 2020, when Apple is launching an iPhone with a 5G chipset even though networks are far from ready. Around the world, 5G signals are not necessarily faster than 4G.
But CEO Tim Cook has few choices. The past shifts to both 3G and 4G were hugely important in spurring people to upgrade their smartphones. By the law of large numbers, Apple now finds it hard to sustain the same growth rate it saw in 2014, when the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus were released. They became the best-selling iPhone models of all time, selling more than 220 millions units worldwide. Their successors, the iPhone 7 and 7Plus, have sold less than 80 million units to date. It’s hard to know how many iPhone 12s Apple could actually sell.
The fundamental problem is that those faster speeds will be important for video streaming and gaming, but they won’t necessarily make a difference in regular web surfing or email checking. That may make some consumers pause before they spend money on a new phone, particularly given the very uncertain economic times we live in.
If you are a shareholder, please don’t sell your Apple shares quite yet. There is one more trick Apple has to get people to buy the latest iPhone they don’t need.
Everything is a Subscription
Starting in fall 2020, Apple One will be available in over 100 countries, including in the US. Subscribe to Apple One and you’ll get Apple Music, Apple TV+, Apple Arcade, and iCloud storage. Apple Premier will add on Apple News+ and Apple Fitness+.
Apple One alone might not get consumers to buy new iPhones. But if it’s bundled with those phones, it might do just that.
Since last year, people have been able to pay for a new iPhone on a monthly basis. In the US, for example, you can get an iPhone 11 and Apple TV+ for $17/month. Apple also adjusted its AppleCare+ terms. You can subscribe monthly, and AppleCare+ will carry on until you cancel, just like other Apple services such as Apple Music. Of course, Apple has its iPhone Upgrade Program, which bundles a yearly upgrade and AppleCare+. But this shift to selling AppleCare+ on its own is another step to make Apple’s relationship with its customers into a subscription-based one.
If this sounds complicated, it is. That’s because Apple is running all these different bundles to gather consumer data. It needs behavioral data to calculate the lifetime value of a user. If I give you a new iPhone, how likely is it that you’ll cancel it in six months? How likely are you to break it, so that I will need to replace it for free? If I bundle different services, are you going to upgrade them or not?
All these questions can only be answered by real-world experiments. And you can bet Apple is running those right now.
It’s only a matter of time before Apple offers a variant of the iPhone Upgrade Program that is simply an all-inclusive Apple subscription. You’ll pay one monthly fee, and get everything Apple has to offer. Indeed, in the era of the iPhone 12 and beyond, nothing would show that Apple is a services company more than making the iPhone itself a service.
When that happens, make sure you really stock up Apple shares.
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From Netflix to Amazon Prime, from Disney+ to Microsoft 365, the subscription model is king for one reason: customer adoption. Whenever something turns into a subscription, you no longer pay a lump sum upfront. You pay a small monthly fee and then get habituated. When was the last time you canceled a magazine subscription?
But for a technology company like Apple, subscriptions solve another problem. They help push the technology toward maturity rather than having it pull the consumer over. Here is the scenario. Unless there are lots of phones with 5G chipsets, telecom carriers won’t be very eager to roll out 5G on a large scale. But without a good 5G network, the iPhone 12 won’t have big appeal.
A subscription model will break that cycle. You and I won’t mind having a feature we don’t really use. Since the monthly subscription feels cheap, having a new phone with a nice packaging is already enough. That lowers the barrier to consumption, which in turn creates this push for telecom providers to plunge ahead with 5G rollouts.
Is it a sustainable strategy? We don’t know. But it’s the only viable strategy to keep Apple growing. So the company is trying it.
What about you? Will you be buying the new iPhone 12 on subscription?
Howard Yu is the LEGO professor of management and innovation at Switzerland’s IMD and is director of the advanced management program (AMP). His book Leap: How to Thrive in a World Where Everything Can Be Copied was published by PublicAffairs in 2018.