Fifteen years ago, when Steve Jobs unveiled the "One Last Thing" and introduced the iPhone 3G, he heralded the dawn of the mobile internet era.
Fast forward to today, Apple's product launches no longer ignite market euphoria. Instead, they often lead to widespread disappointment. This sentiment peaked with the release of the iPhone 15, and concerns grew with Huawei's strong resurgence in the mobile market.
As the company with the highest global market value, Apple has always been at the forefront of the mobile internet age. However, when compared to industry disruptors like Tesla in the automotive sector or Microsoft's investments in artificial intelligence, Apple's innovation seems to lag.
Beyond smartphones, Apple's progress in XR, automotive, and AI has been slow. Its software ecosystem is also under strain, facing challenges from all sides. This uncertainty is the root of investor disagreements on Apple's stock value, as the company's future direction remains unclear.
Apple needs to re-establish itself as a "disruptor" to regain the confidence of both investors and consumers.
After the Apple event on September 13, the usual buzz surrounding the company was noticeably absent. Instead, Huawei smartphones once again dominated the trending topics, highlighting Apple's waning influence.
The iPhone 15 series failed to deliver any significant surprises. The iPhone 15 can essentially be seen as a "small-screen version of the iPhone 14 Pro." While the PRO models feature the cutting-edge 3nm A17 Pro chip, this was expected. The shift from the Lightning port to USB-C was also anticipated.
The most notable upgrade was in the camera department. The iPhone 15 Pro Max introduced a periscope-style telephoto lens, allowing for distant close-up shots and supporting 3D video recording. This indicates Apple's ambition to strengthen MR content production and fill the VisionPro content gap.
However, overall, the iPhone 15 lacked groundbreaking innovations. Market expectations for the iPhone 15 series sales are also not optimistic.
Before Apple's event, Dan Niles, founder of the hedge fund Satori Fund, expressed his intention to short Apple on social media. Niles believes Apple's growth is slowing, and its performance doesn't justify its high valuation.
JPMorgan previously stated that the upcoming iPhone 15 lacks substantial upgrades and wouldn't attract a significant number of users to upgrade. Mizuho Bank in Japan also reduced its iPhone 15 production forecast from 84 million units to 73 million, a decline of 13.1%.
Moreover, Huawei, Apple's main competitor in the high-end smartphone market, is poised to reclaim its lost market share. Data from Counterpoint shows that in 2020, Apple held 55% of the global high-end smartphone market, while Huawei had 13%. By 2022, Apple's share ballooned to 75%, with Huawei dwindling to just 3%.
Now, with Huawei's strong comeback with the Mate60 series, Apple's sales are expected to face pressure.
Martin Yang, an analyst at investment firm Oppenheimer, believes that due to the launch of Huawei's Mate60 series, Apple's iPhone shipments in 2024 could decrease by 10 million units.
In fact, since 2015, when iPhone sales peaked at 231 million units, annual sales have hovered around 200 million units for nearly seven years. Apple has had to seek financial growth through cost control and its software service ecosystem.
The consumer electronics market has already entered a phase of competition for existing market share. This means that when a formidable player like Huawei enters the scene, Apple's market share and growth are even more at risk.
More concerning is that Apple's service business, which accounts for over 30% of Apple's gross profit and was second only to iPhone in revenue (accounting for 26% in Q2 2023), is also facing challenges.
On September 6, the European Union introduced legislation that includes Apple among six tech companies to be regulated under the "Digital Market Act." Apple's App Store commission model and licensing revenues, which have been lucrative for the company, are now under regulatory scrutiny.
With challenges to both the iPhone and services - its two core businesses - Apple is facing unprecedented problems. Amid these shadows, Apple's stock price has continued to fall. Since the beginning of September, by the close of September 14, it had already dropped about 6%, a significant decline for a tech giant with a market value exceeding two trillion dollars.
Shackles of the Past
Apple has always been a leader in the mobile internet era, built on the foundation of the iPhone 3G's software ecosystem introduced 15 years ago. This innovation elevated Apple to a revered status in the tech world, with each annual product launch event becoming a must-watch for fans. Its stock price embarked on a 15-year journey, multiplying 30 times and making it the company with the highest market value globally.
However, under the leadership of Tim Cook, who comes from a financial and operational background, there have been persistent doubts. Many investors believe that compared to Jobs, Cook hasn't done enough in terms of innovation and expansion.
After Jobs' passing, Cook centered Apple's strategy around the iPhone, introducing wireless earbuds, smartwatches, and related entertainment subscription services, creating a unique Apple ecosystem. While this made the smartphone business the most core and profitable, it also seemed to trap Apple. Outside of the iPhone ecosystem, there haven't been any breakthrough products or services, whether in car manufacturing or MR.
In June of this year, the long-delayed Apple MR head-mounted display, Apple Vision Pro, was launched. Its high price and less-than-convenient user experience made Cook's statement that "the iPhone brought us into the mobile computing era, Vision Pro will take us into the spatial computing era" seem still far from reality.
The AI wave that exploded this year has become a battleground for every tech giant. From the beginning of the year, Microsoft's stock price, which invested in OpenAI, has risen by 50%. NVIDIA, a key player in AI, saw its stock price double, and even Tesla received a boost in stock value, jumping 10% overnight due to its Dojo supercomputer garnering positive attention from investment banks.
In past earnings calls and product launches, Apple rarely mentioned AI or large-scale models. This has led institutional investors to perceive Apple more as a consumer goods company, believing it lags in AI technology.
Some analysts have even boldly stated that as AI continues to evolve, Apple's dominant position might be upended, with companies like Microsoft, Google, and Amazon potentially surpassing it.
For Apple to break free from these constraints, a breakthrough in AI is imperative. In reality, Apple's investment and experimentation in AI have never ceased. Cook emphasizes that in every Apple product, AI is a foundational technology, an indispensable part.
The iPhone 15 series, particularly the Pro and Pro Max, are equipped with Apple's latest in-house A17 Pro chip, featuring a six-core CPU and six-core GPU.
The A17 Pro is the first in the mobile industry to utilize a 3nm (nanometer) process. Its performance core speed has increased by 10%, and its neural engine speed has doubled. The powerful computing capabilities of Apple's 3nm chip mean that even just using the phone's chip, it's possible to have fluid conversations with Siri, automatically execute multi-step tasks, and assist users in document creation. In the future, Apple's AI applications will only become smarter.
From a standpoint of security and convenience, the notion of "everything is AI" might first manifest in smartphones. Phones equipped with outdated chips will gradually be phased out in future competitions.
Compared to the outspoken Elon Musk, who has been vocal about Tesla approaching its "Chat GPT moment," Cook is a pragmatist. He prefers to wait until AI products are mature before unveiling them to the public.
If one day, Cook introduces AI applications as the "One more thing" highlight, it could represent Apple's "second growth curve."
By then, Apple would not only be the world's most profitable company but also a pivotal force propelling technological advancement. In the AI era, it won't just fade into the crowd.