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Why We Can’t Stop Talking About Apple

Apple Profit Rises 78% On Demand For IPads, IPhones, As Steve Jobs Takes Leave Of AbsenceApple Profit Rises 78% On Demand For IPads, IPhones, As Steve Jobs Takes Leave Of Absence

I had a chuckle Monday morning, when Steven Milunovich, a technology analyst with investment bank UBS, told a San Francisco conference he was hosting that Apple (AAPL) had declined his invitation to send an executive to speak. Instead, he asked three Apple experts to form a panel: analyst Horace Dediu, blogger (and University of Michigan senior) Mark Gurman, and me. I was amused because I pulled a similar maneuver at Fortune Brainstorm Tech in Aspen three years ago. If Apple won’t talk about itself, then invite others to talk about Apple.

Apple justifiably remains the object of fascination for everyone from product fanatics to Wall Street investors. Milunovich noted that Apple trades for a surprisingly low “multiple” to its earnings, presumably because investors think of it as a hit machine. Dediu, as shrewd an observer of Apple as they come, believes that while Apple indeed is hit-driven, investors are missing a larger point. Apple, in Dediu’s view, has built up a quasi-subscription business in that customers buy something from Apple with great regularity. He doesn’t see that changing.

Gurman, who is studying design and entrepreneurship, among other subjects, puts great stock in all the evidence that Apple intends to build a car. Dediu thinks the question isn’t whether Apple builds a car but how many. My contribution to this discussion is that while I agree Apple is pursuing a car—they have hired too many people to believe otherwise—I wouldn’t put it past Apple to cancel or shelve the project if it isn’t moving along satisfactorily. It would sting Apple to sink billions of dollars into an initiative that doesn’t see the light of day, but the sting of a multibillion-dollar flop would be worse.

Asked the biggest risk Apple faces, I suggested its overreliance on the iPhone. Dediu thinks it is the tricky task of maintaining Apple’s culture, especially without Steve Jobs.

There isn’t another company on the planet that is discussed this way. Still.

This article first appeared in the daily Fortune newsletter Data Sheet. Subscribe here for a daily dose of analysis from Adam Lashinsky and a curation of the day’s technology news from Heather Clancy.