Peter Kafka

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No Matter How Hard You Try, You Can’t Get Apple to Say Anything Nice About a Netbook

giant_iphone-150x150This is now an Apple earnings-call tradition: Analysts try their hardest to convince Apple (AAPL) executives to express interest in the booming market for cheap netbooks and Apple executives make it perfectly clear how much disdain they have for netbooks.

If that’s the kind of thing that makes you happy, then you would love today’s call, in which the exact same thing happened again. Twice! From my transcription/paraphrase this afternoon:

Q: What about getting into the low priced/netbook category?

Apple COO Tim Cook: “Our goal is not to build the most computers, it’s to build the best. Whatever price point we can build the best in, we will play there. At this point, we don’t see a way to build a great product at that price point, $399, $499.” We think many customers buying those find themselves “disenchanted” after buying cheapo/netbooks.

Q: Do you think there is an emerging market for a “truly mobile device” with a larger screen, a market big enough that you may want to participate?

Cook: “Never want to discount anything in the future,” and never want to answer specifically your question about new products. [Duh.] But boy, do we think netbooks are lousy, and we think customers agree.

Two things here:

  1. Apple has a history of disparaging products and markets right before they unveil their own. So it’s not unreasonable for analysts to keep asking about the prospects for a supercheap Mac laptop. But Apple really is emphatic about its distaste for these machines.
  2. Apple is not ruling some sort of device that’s more expensive than a netbook and less expensive than a $999 MacBook…and may have a big touchscreen…and is bigger than an iPhone, etc. Something, perhaps, like an $800 iTablet. We’ll see.

EARLIER:

Joining call late; analysis of Q3 results here.

Reading from prepared statement:

  • Eight billion songs purchased and downloaded from iTunes store.
  • Slight uptick at Mac retail stores. 50 percent of Macs sold at stores to customers who didn’t own Macs before. 258 stores. 27 store remodels.
  • Gross-margin improvement: Component cost increase not as high as expected; weaker U.S. dollar helped.
  • Cash pile: Will be invested in short-term investments. First week of Q4, made $500 million payment to Toshiba for future supply of NAND flash memory.

Q&A:

  • Please talk about your relationship with wireless carriers (i.e., when will you dump AT&T (T) for Verizon (VZ). Tim Cook: “I think that most of the carriers we’re doing business with are thrilled with lower churn…and, of course, their customers are demanding the iPhone.” Do you see opportunity beyond the iPhone, like data plans for laptops with AT&T? “Nothing to be announced today.” How’s your relationship with AT&T? “I think it’s an excellent relationship and we’re very happy with it.”
  • Discussion of education and professional market for Mac laptops/PCs–both affected by economy more than consumer market, i.e., schools and corporations are less likely to spring for shiny new Macs than Joe Sixpack.
  • How is the $99 iPhone performing? As we made changes–launch of 3Gs and lower-priced iPhones–we saw acceleration of unit sales. But won’t break down mix. Supply of phones has been “constrained” and demand is robust. Opportunity for enterprise sale? Big opportunity. Doing well with small business, and with big corporations and agencies where employees can purchase for themselves.
  • Guidance details? No change in thinking regarding guidance offerings. We usually see an increase in Mac units from June to September, but we think the sequential increase will be less than in previous years since we’ve refreshed our lines a while back. Also, education sales are “under pressure from budget shortfalls.” Same thing with the iPod: We think we’ll see a decline for regular players but an increase for the iPod touch. Seasonality makes projections a little funky this time around given timing of product launches.
  • Channel inventory for iPhone lower is than we would like; there are 1.83 million phones in inventory.
  • Given the $999 MacBook and price cuts for the Mac line, is the MacBook more or less elastic than anticipated? As we expected, some people are now buying up, because they can get the Macbook Pro for $1,199, down from $1,899. “We’re not thinking fundamentally different about the Mac business than we were before.” If we can build great Macs at lower prices, we will, but we won’t put the Mac brand on products that aren’t up to our standards.
  • Update on Snow Leopard? Why such a low price point? Snow Leopard is priced aggressively so that all our users can upgrade to it, and we expect that they will. What commodity prices are you worried about, what should we think of the Toshiba prebuy? Are others coming? The market for DRAM and large-size LCDs has “shifted to constrained environment” and prices have moved accordingly. The NAND supply is getting better. We have a long-term supply agreement with Toshiba. We view flash as key component because we use it in so many products, and we’re a big consumer on a worldwide basis. We’re always open to similar deals. We’ve done one with LG on LCDs. We may do others, but we’re not working on one now.
  • Please talk more about consumer demand for lower-priced laptops. No details forthcoming. But on macro level: Once price changes, people are upsold from $999 unit to $1,199 unit. [We just heard that.] Prior to change, we had seen people leaning toward the $999 product. What about pricing on iPhone side? Sounds like $99 3G iPhone helped drive traffic to the $199 3GS iPhone. Was that the plan? We’re focused on total iPhone units. So we’re psyched about 5.2M iPhones sold. Also, take note that the 3GS is in short supply and not available in all territories. Also, early in cycle, you have more upgraders, and upgraders are more likely to get higher priced phones. Still, too early to tell about product mix.
  • Competitors are now finally coming out with rival app stores–Pre (barely), BlackBerry, etc.). What are you up to in answering back? Well, we just launched OS 3.0. That’s pretty great. It has an Installed base of 45 million (iPhones and iPod touch). We have a gazillion apps. According to the latest numbers from Nokia (NOK) and RIM (RIMM), they have a couple thousand each; Android has maybe 5,000. “We feel extremely good about our competitive position and continue to believe that we’re light years ahead of other people.”
  • What about getting into the low-priced/netbook category? Tim Cook: “Our goal is not to build the most computers, it’s to build the best. Whatever price point we can build the best in, we will play there. At this point, we don’t see a way to build a great product at that price point, $399, $499.” We think many customers buying those find themselves “disenchanted” after buying cheapo/netbooks.
  • Is the carrier network strong enough to handle all the apps and the more robust apps you’re coming out with every day? Non-answer. Do you think you guys will make investments on the side to take pressure of carrier-capacity issues? No plans. When we entered business, we looked at it, decided what we could do well was deliver the handset. I think there are other people that have more skills in the network area, and I think we have a lot of those partners.
  • Back to netbooks and things like netbooks, but better, like the iTablet: Do you think there is an emerging market for a “truly mobile device” with a larger screen, a market big enough that you may want to participate? Cook: “Never want to discount anything in the future,” and never want to answer specifically your question about new products. [Duh.] But, boy, do we think netbooks are lousy and we think customers agree.
  • Any info on iPhone sales split between new buyers and upgrades? Nope. Okay, how about the app store? It looks like prices are in a “race to the bottom”; there are lots of 99 cent apps. Are you worried about that? And can you help customers distinguish between good ones and “garbage”? Cook: “We realize there’s further opportunity for improvement” regarding promoting quality apps, etc. Regarding price: It’s up to the developers. As the installed base grows, it makes more sense to have lower prices, but that’s up to the developers.

Call finished.


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