Apple VP Greg Joswiak announces the new iPhone SE during the March 21 "Let us loop you in" event.
Justin Sullivan — Getty Images
By Aaron Pressman
April 13, 2016

Apple remains the most valuable company on the stock market despite concerns about slowing iPhone sales.

But UBS analyst Steven Milunovich sees three far more serious issues on the horizon that could actually “change the game” and take the world’s most profitable company down. Call it the three C’s of the apocalypse: China, chat bots and cheap phones.

“The main Apple debate today is about iPhone upgrades based on marginal new features and lengthening of the upgrade cycle,” Milunovich wrote in a short report on Wednesday. “This is a high-class problem in that the issue is timing of upgrades rather than challenges from outside the ecosystem.”

Analysts expect Apple’s iPhone sales will drop somewhat below the 231 million devices it sold last year and newer products like the Apple Watch and Apple TV have yet to gain enough sales to make up the difference.

But the more important issues for Apple (aapl) start with China, according to Milunovich. Apple’s astounding growth the past few years was fueled by growth in China after the country’s largest mobile carrier, China Mobile, finally agreed to sell the iPhone.

“A more serious issue would be if the government were to favor domestic suppliers as we have seen in enterprise computing,” Milunovich writes. “IBM, HP, and Cisco have suffered declining sales in China as domestic champions like Lenovo and Huawei mature.”

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The second issue, hitting maximum hype currently thanks to Facebook’s announcements this week, is the danger of chat bots to Apple’s app store business. The $50 billion business has been critical in helping Apple attract and retain iPhone customers, Milunovich said. But messaging apps are increasingly incorporating the functions of apps via so-called bots, automated digital helpers that can pull up information, complete commerce transactions, and order a taxi.

“Bots—software that automates tasks—mostly reside in messaging apps (apps within apps),” the analyst noted. “Facebook just announced the Messenger Bot Store, a bot platform that allows businesses to interact with consumers. Could the App Store lose share?”

Finally, the Apple boogeyman that has long been predicted and never come to pass—the threat that consumers will drop their allegiance to the iPhone and switch to cheap smartphones that have become “good enough.”

Milunovich mentions the cheap phone threat, though he sounds less than convinced it is about to come to pass.

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“Counter arguments are that Apple sells to brand-conscious consumers rather than to businesses and it has maintained sufficient differentiation through product integration and the ecosystem,” he writes. “Still, given the history of hardware commoditization, bulls are taking the position that Apple is an exception to history.”

Shares of Apple were up 1% on Wednesday morning. The shares have gained 6% so far this year, outpacing the 2% rise in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index.

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