Apple (AAPL) Stock May Crash If the Company Doesn't Learn From Other Tech Company Disasters


Apple users are mostly happy and satisfied (well, those with stable, functional iDevices). Owners of Apple stock? Not so much. If each current share doesn't return to and exceed its recent high value of $702, what's the point of keeping it or buying more? Profits and growth are still promising but appear to be stagnant at the moment. Apple has had to forge ahead without the late co-founder Steve Jobs before, and growth and profitability surfaced as major investor concerns then, too.

In the mid 90s, while Jobs was off applying his brand of style and vision at NeXT and Pixar, Apple was having a problem continuing his Macintosh line of personal computers. Macintosh still commanded a price premium over the IBM PC and its clones powered by Microsoft Windows, but declining sales dogged the company. Users proudly declaring "I'm a Mac" were loyal but vastly outnumbered by the "I'm a PC" crowd, and were maybe wondering how much longer Apple could keep the dream alive. Winning lawsuits for patent infringement, which underscored a rivalry with Microsoft and would again a couple decades later against Samsung, might prove to the world that you're "right." A brutal truth remains that if you can't turn a profit, you can't grow or innovate or continue, and then these patent suit victories just ensure history will remember you as "dead right."

Virtually every company faces low-priced challengers after a successful "next big thing" product has provided high margins for many years. Any company in this defensive position has two choices to maintain market position in free market capitalism: lower the price or make a better mousetrap. In 1995, as Steve Jobs watched in horror, a Jobs-less Apple chose the path of price erosion for Macintosh. Maybe they figured they would make up for the lower profit per unit with sales volume?

Management had concocted a scheme to license out the Mac architecture so that low-cost manufacturers could offer Mac clones at a lower price and even in low-end, de-featured forms. This would hurt profits on the hardware business, and Apple would lose control over look and feel of hardware sold by third parties, but at least there would be more machines in the world running Apple software. Motorola, who provided the PowerPC CPU and many other custom chips to Apple, was to be the first to market with their Mac clone. The Motorola StarMax was designed, tested and in pre-production when Jobs quickly rushed back to Apple to stomp out this madness, canceling the license agreement and souring the relationship with Motorola, which promptly plucked Macs off virtually all employees' desks and replaced them with PCs running Windows.

Much has changed. Motorola is now part of Google, and Apple sources critical silicon from Intel. Other things are still the same, however. Instead of cheap "me too" products invading its desktop turf, Apple is now losing potential new buyers of expensive gadgets to a wave of cheaper "me too" mobile devices. Once again, the age-old, mutually-exclusive choices emerge — make something new people will want to buy, or reduce profit by lowering prices and hope the stockholders look the other way.

Steve Jobs provided a valuable lesson we, as well as his successor Tim Cook, should learn from. Innovating is not easy, but to consistently succeed you need to make a habit of coming out with products people will want to spend lots of their money on. Look at the timeline following his return to Apple: iMac in 1998; iPod in 2001; iPhone in 2007, iPad in 2010. If you can't be the first to make something that's okay, just as long as you make yours better. Low cost is a prerequisite, but low prices hurt profits. For profitable products you are limited to 2 of the following 3 aspects: Good, Fast, and Cheap. The two correct choices, at least to the customers who have driven Apple to where they are now, are Good and Fast. They won't care how Cheap if these two are met. 

The world is ready for the next big thing again, and is currently in the habit of getting it from Apple. To repeat history, reverse the decline and avoid the fate of Palm, RIM, and other flash-in-the-pan tech innovators in recent memory. Apple needs to learn from the past mistakes it made without Jobs at the helm.