Why Apple investors shouldn’t sweat Android

Apr 11, 2011

It seems that almost every day I’m confronted with yet another insignificant article explaining how Google has surpassed Apple in “platform market share” and that, due to this cataclysmic state of affairs, investors should jump ship as this surely amounts to nothing short of the financial end of Apple.

Just recently, Business Insider’s Henry Blodget published a piece on this highly immaterial subject which generated tremendous criticism from investors, readers and even other members of the press. In his article, breathlessly entitled “Android is Destroying Everyone, Especially RIM – iPhone Dead in Water”, Blodget writes that Apple investors should be “scared to death” by Android’s recent 7-point gain in U.S. market share over the past three months. According to comScore, Android OS holds 33% of the U.S. market while RIM OS holds 29% and Apple iOS only 25%.

Blodget argues that Android market share gains are very important “because technology platform markets tend to standardize around a single dominant platform. And the more dominant the platform becomes, the more valuable it becomes and the harder it becomes to dislodge. The network effect kicks in, and developers building products designed to work with the platform devote more and more of their energy to the platform. The reward of building and working with other platforms, meanwhile, drops, and gradually developers stop developing for them.” While Blodget does lay out the main concern in any platform war, his evidence for why Google (goog) is starting to dominate is not only insubstantial, it’s actually irrelevant.<!-- more -->

After hundreds of comments posted to his article, many of them critical, Blodget then published a second story attacking the Apple (aapl) investment community at large for criticizing his article. In Blodget’s defense, some Apple investors do consistently publish highly inappropriate and emotionally charged comments if they feel an article takes a bearish stance against the company -- even when the article is justified. But dismissing Apple investors, many of them obviously intelligent enough to make nearly 500% gains in the company since the lows of the financial crisis, as though they're zealots going insane, is equally inappropriate.

Financial journalists often miss the larger picture or fail miserably at raising any actual or material concerns for Apple. This platform market share issue is no different. It is a perfect example of how a journalist can rely on one set of misleading data in order to distort the reality regarding the overall smartphone industry. Let’s get back to reality -- the reality that platform market share asks all of the wrong questions.

First of all, because Google doesn’t actually make any hardware it becomes very difficult to tell exactly where these gains are coming from. Are the gains being derived from actual growth and conversion rates or are these gains simply coming from Google offering up its platform to more smartphone makers? The latter tells us nothing while the former is very revealing. For example, suppose Research in Motion (rimm) decided it wanted to offer the Android operating system on all of its phones starting on December 31, 2010.

Even if Blackberry sales declined in 2011 for the first time ever, Android growth would skyrocket because every single Blackberry device sold would carry the Android operating system. Suppose the reason for the drop in Blackberry sales is later attributed to the fact that customers disliked the Android operating system and decided to go elsewhere. This reality isn’t reflected in the type of data released by comScore.

Comparing apples to apples

Thus, the more relevant and pressing question is whether a smartphone maker’s year-over-year unit sales growth outperformed or underperformed the industry. For example, if 100 million devices are sold in the global smartphone market in 2010 and 150 million are sold in 2011, any vendor that grew less than 50% is actually losing market share while those vendors that grew more than 50% are gaining market share. It makes sense. The whole market grew by 50% and if Company A added less than 50% more customers it means it lost those customers to someone else.

Interestingly enough, iPhone sales continue to far outpace the growth in the global smartphone market. In the December quarter, for example, while the global smartphone market grew at a pace of 70% year-over-year, Apple’s iPhone grew by 87%. This point right here should end all discussion. But apparently it doesn’t, as we find more and more of these articles every day.

Secondly, if anyone ought to worry about a platform becoming singularly dominant it should be Google. Apple has its iOS seeded in not only one, but three separate markets that it dominates -- the iPhone, the iPad and the iPod Touch. Even more importantly, the next version of Apple’s Mac OS (Lion) is going to assume many key elements of the iOS operating system, which will likely result in higher conversion rates to the overall Apple ecosystem.

If we’re going to discuss platforms in isolation of unit sales it seems a little disingenuous to intentionally exclude sales of the iPad and iPod Touch. After all, platform market share is supposedly of the utmost importance because developers are purportedly going to rush straight to whichever platform is more ubiquitous. ComScore doesn’t include sales of either device when looking at the platform, which makes the overall data meaningless and unreliable.

Finally, here is why this issue of platform market share is trivial and financially irrelevant to the overall Apple investment thesis, and does nothing more than to distract people from financial reality. In the end, Apple makes so much of the money in the smartphone industry because it actually understands how to run a business. Apple’s iPhone is far outpacing the growth in the global smartphone industry according to IDC and Gartner.

The iPhone is growing at a pace of 85-100% each quarter. iPhone revenue is nearly doubling each quarter. After selling 39 million iPhones in 2010, Apple is going to sell more than 75 million in 2011, generating nearly $50 billion in revenue from a single device.

Google will probably report about $6.5 billion in total revenue when it releases its first quarter results later this week. Apple’s iPhone alone will very likely eclipse $11 billion for the March quarter. For 2011, Google is expected to report about $27 billion on the top line compared to the iPhone’s expected $48.2 billion in revenue. The iPhone as a business is nearly twice the size of Google’s entire operation. This is a financial reality rarely illuminated in these so-called “platform market share” articles where Apple investors are supposed to be “deathly afraid” of the Android operating system that doesn’t even create a fraction of the revenue Apple generates from the iPhone.

If the two charts below aren’t enough to show why Apple investors shouldn’t really lose much sleep over Android, RIM or any other company, perhaps the color green will. As of the close on Friday, Apple is trading at only 18.69 times last year’s earnings before backing out its nearly $60 billion in cash. Apple reported $15.15 in EPS on $65.2 billion in revenue in 2010. For the 2011 fiscal year I’m expecting Apple to report $27.30 in EPS on $111.6 billion in revenue. This represents a 71.2% top line growth expectation and an 80.1% growth rate on the bottom line. Apple will end the year with nearly $75-$80 billion in cash or about $87.00 in cash per share.

There’s a lot of bearishness going around in Apple these days. Is the iPhone 5 delayed? Is it not delayed? Is Apple able to make enough iPads? Can it still grow? Is the Android supplanting Apple’s dominance? What happens when the NASDAQ-100 rebalances in May?

All of these issues are extraordinarily minor in the grand scheme of things. Here’s a clear dose of reality -- Apple shares will see $500 before we close out the year. This platform market share issue is trivial from a financial perspective. Once Apple lags the growth of the global smartphone market in unit sales, then investors can start to worry. Until that time, enjoy the ride straight to $500.

2011 figures are estimated

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