At this point Wall Street and the technology press expect so little from Apple's earnings, it will be difficult to disappoint them. If you read through Chuck Jones’ post here on Forbes or the consensus forecast Philip Elmer-DeWitt does over at Fortune, you can see the gory details of what everyone believes Apple will report after the market closes today. But in the interest of saving you some time, here’s a summary: Flat revenues, minimal earnings growth due only to share buybacks, a tiny uptick in iPhone sales offset by a downtick in iPad sales. In other words, the market is convinced that with nothing new in the past quarter and giant revenue comps from a year ago, Apple has almost nowhere to go but sideways.
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The frustration in the financial community, per a report at Bloomberg, is perhaps the biggest growth story around Apple these days. Consider what Mike Walkley with Canaccord Genuity had to say about the company: “It’s hard to argue how Apple can grow longer term,” he told Bloomberg. And to be clear, he actually recommends buying Apple shares. That separates him from Michael Obuchowski of Merlin Asset Management, who appears ready to throw in the towel for good: “There’s incredible potential but how long can you wait? I’m getting to the level of frustration that I don’t know how much longer I’ll be holding on to that company.”
For guys like Obuchowski, today is likely to add to that frustration. Apple doesn’t announce new products on earnings calls and this one won’t be any different. Further, while it may have a little to say about future increases in dividends or additional share buybacks, those have been minimal catalysts for the stock thus far. And it’s a safe bet that even a significant boost to either method of “returning cash to shareholders” won’t satisfy the antsy ones.
Business Insider is joining with Bloomberg in trying to put Tim Cook on the hot seat. “People (including ourselves) are getting impatient with Apple and Tim Cook,” Business Insider opined. And at least in the echo chamber of the financial community and the people who follow it, that might be true. But Cook isn’t going away and neither is Apple.
Which leaves open the question of where Apple is going. Bloomberg has already decided the iWatch, expected later in 2014, won’t be a difference maker. “New products like a wearable watch-like gadget that the company could release may not be popular beyond enthusiasts,” it concluded. In a Twitter exchange with Business Insider’s Henry Blodget, he argued there was a year left before smartphones were just a “commodity” and that iPhone sales were destined to be “shrinking” soon.
Blodget isn’t especially guilty of anything other than assuming that Apple can’t or won’t do anything different than it has been doing over the past year or so. In this space, I’ve argued there are a number of opportunities for Cook and company to alter course in at least two directions, both of which could ignite growth and, in fact, work synergistically. First, Apple could seek somewhat lower prices for its products. This still doesn’t mean fighting in the low end, but rather it means pursuing more of the middle of the market. Think average iPhone prices in the $500s rather than the $600s. (There is some small evidence Apple is heading down this path with the 8GB iPhone 5c, but if the company is serious about it, an entry level iPhone at $299 or so will need to become a reality.)
Second, the company could make a much more concerted effort on the software and services side than it has. A larger iOS ecosystem from selling more phones plays nicely into this strategy. But to really leverage the potential of a billion devices Apple will need to get its rumored mobile payments services into gear as well as to get creative on growing iTunes/AppStore revenues. A detailed discussion of that will have to wait. In the meantime, I’ll be back later today with a live blog of Apple’s earnings call as well as analysis of anything the company does reveal.