Is Apple Losing Its Shine After Steve Jobs?

A few more disappointing quarters -- or slowing iPhone sales-growth -- and doubt could build about Apple's post-Steve Jobs future.

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David Paul Morris / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Steve Jobs unveils the iCloud storage system at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco, June 6, 2011.

If last week’s technology earnings bloodbath gave you pause, consider this: What happens if Apple, the world’s most valuable technology company, falters? It’s a chilling thought. As the one-year anniversary approaches of the death of Steve Jobs, the visionary and revered executive behind Apple’s most beloved products, tough questions could bubble up about Apple’s future, especially if we see a few more quarters of disappointing earnings results — or weakening iPhone sales growth.

Last week, Apple delivered a rare earnings disappointment. The report was notable for weak iPhone sales growth, which Apple tried to explain by citing “rumors and speculation” about a new iPhone that could be leading consumers to hold out for the new model. Apple reported sales of $35 billion, below Wall Street expectations of $37 billion, and said it sold 26 million iPhones, down from 35.1 million in the previous quarter but 28% higher than last year. That result was underwhelming for a company that normally blows away Wall Street expectations. “It’s disappointing on the iPhone number,” Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster observed mildly.

Apple has a winning product with the iPad tablet, but that device faces increased competition, most notably from newly introduced Google and Microsoft devices. Also: don’t forget that iPhone sales account for nearly half of Apple’s overall revenue, though sales of the newer — and more expensive iPad — are rising more quickly. To continue its astonishing ascent for the next 5 years — venture capital titan Marc Andreessen’s baseline time-horizon for Silicon Valley tech innovation — Apple is going to need a new breakthrough hit product.

Apple’s competition isn’t going to remain in chaos forever, and there are signs that the company’s rivals are, in fact, getting their respective acts together. Apple shares fell over 5% after the report, though they’ve since rebounded, in part because the company’s stock is still seen as safe in an especially turbulent market.

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What if Steve Jobs already introduced the overwhelming balance of Apple’s breakthrough products? After all, during his too-brief, once-in-a-century career, he radically disrupted at least seven industries: personal computing, desktop software, music, mobile phones, publishing, tablet computers, and Hollywood animation, as Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson recently observed on 60 Minutes.

This week, the Associated Press published a story with a truly eye-opening headline: “IPhone appeal dims as Samsung shines.” IPhone appeal dims? That’s not exactly the impression given by the company’s report nor its executives. To the extent that consumers are waiting for the new iPhone, it means they really want one. Sure, a weakening economy doesn’t help, but as Apple CEO Tim Cook said: “I’m glad that people want the next thing. I’m super-happy about that.” So what did the AP report offer to back up that headline?

The once-sexy iPhone is starting to look small and chubby…For a dose of smartphone envy, iPhone owners need to look no further than Samsung Electronics Co., the number-one maker of smartphones in the world. Its newest flagship phone, the Galaxy S III, is sleek and wafer-thin. It can run on the fastest networks and act as a ‘smart wallet,’ too — two things that Apple’s iconic phone can’t do….Says Ramon Llamas, an analyst with research firm IDC: The iPhone ‘is getting a bit long in the tooth.’

It’s true that Apple’s strategy of releasing one new iPhone per year leaves the field of battle open to the company’s competition for the rest of the year, as the report pointed out. It’s also true that the iPhone’s screen size — 3.5 inches diagonally — has stayed the same since the first model was released five years ago, as the report also pointed out. And it’s true that Apple’s competitors — most notably Samsung — are forging ahead with new models that pose an increasing challenge to the iPhone’s remarkable run.

It’s too early to declare that the iPhone’s appeal is “dimming.” We won’t know whether consumers are really souring on the device until the company reports earnings results following the release of the new model. I also think there’s a subtext to some of the negative Apple chatter, and it’s a little more profound than questions about whether consumers are cooling on the company’s signature product: Nearly one year after the death of Apple’s iconic co-founder and spiritual leader Steve Jobs, how long Apple can continue its unbelievable run of business performance without him?

Remember: Last time Jobs left the company, it nearly collapsed. Is that going to happen again? No. Apple has over $100 billion cash. Also: Jobs made sure to stock the company’s product pipeline with cool devices. (New Apple TV anyone?) Most importantly, he instilled a culture of innovation and execution within Apple’s DNA that will serve it well going forward. And CEO Tim Cook, the company’s chief operating officer for the last decade, was instrumental in Apple’s best-in-class production and supply-chain operation.

A focused and brilliant operational thinker, Cook had one job: execute Jobs’ vision, and Cook did so magnificently. Cook has also moved aggressively to address critics about Apple’s working conditions at Chinese industrial giant Foxconn. He’s loosened Jobs-era limits on corporate philanthropy. He’s initiated a new plan to issue a long-clamored-for dividend to Apple shareholders — one that should soon land the company in the mighty Dow Jones Industrial Average.

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But as much as I respect him, Tim Cook is not Steve Jobs. Whereas Jobs was iconoclastic and mercurial, Cook is low-key. Cook burns with an understated intensity, but not the phone-slamming, screaming-match-having passion that Jobs was famous for. In other words, it was perhaps inevitable that questions would be raised about Apple’s fate in the post-Jobs era. In fact, those questions began almost as soon as Jobs passed away 10 months ago — even if the company’s stellar performance over the last year quieted most of those concerns.

By asking about Apple’s post-Jobs future, I’m not trying to troll a company I respect deeply. But a few more quarters of below-expectations results could spook Wall Street. Further weak iPhone sales-growth could obviate the “consumers are waiting for the new model” explanation, and will only cause speculation to increase about Apple’s future. We’re not there yet — Apple’s stock price is still up nearly 60% over the last year. But with a company as important and admired as Apple, it’s not too early to begin raising questions.

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