That’s Applegeddon

08/25/2011 3:13 pm EST


The departure of Steve Jobs may not hurt Apple in the short term, but the longer-term picture is less clear, writes editor Mike McMeans.

Perhaps this is our proximity to 2012 talking, but we’ve sure had a lot of Armageddon references lately.

There was Carmageddon, wherein Los Angeles would descend into traffic jam-fueled anarchy because the freeway was closing for road work. The apocalypse never came.

Chicagoland had Snowmageddon, which was supposed to bury the Windy City alive under roving drifts of frozen water. It turned out that Chicago can handle its share of snow, and the terror was nearly forgotten by the next afternoon.

So, is the third time the charm with Applegeddon—that is, Steve Jobs’ stunning late-day exit from the tech giant he built into one of the largest companies in the world…twice?

Like the last two non-disasters, the world is not ending with Apple, A Tim Cook Production. But it’s probably the end of the world as Apple has known it, at least of late, and long-term investors may be seeing the signs as well. Let’s delve deeper...

First, it’s clear that Apple internally knew about this move for a long time. I guess we all did, given Steve’s unfortunate health problems.

But earlier this year, acres of newsprint were splattered with rumors of lower-level execs flying the coop. In fact, the man probably most responsible for redesigning Apple as a geek-hip fashion destination, retail chief Ron Johnson, is slated to leave, and the man responsible for designing most of Apple’s signature products, Jonathan Ive, seems constantly on the outs in Cupertino.

That doesn’t strike me as a normal amount of executive wanderlust. Which isn’t surprising, given that Apple has never been particularly profitable without Jobs. (The resignation also conveniently explains why Apple appears to be speeding up its release schedule this year.)

This leads me to my second point, which is that given Apple’s free cash flow could easily run a moderate-sized country, I’m not counting it out just yet. Nor would I minimize the enormous revenue potential of its current projects.

But then what? I’m not just talking about the iPhone 6 or the iPad 4. I’m asking out loud whether Cook or anyone at Apple—despite all their best intentions—have the genius required to turn a $350 billion company into a $500 or $600 billion company.

My guess is no. Apple will ride the wave from the projects currently in the pipeline—and remember, it could take years to see that through—and then drift down. The chances of significant revenue growth after the next couple of fiscal years would look bleak as it was, even with Jobs on the throne. 

In the meantime, the stock is only down a couple of bucks as I write this. I see no reason to drop it if you’ve already got it, as it would be silly not to expect a boost here or there as the pipeline flushes out.

On the other hand, this is just the latest in a string of bad news for the tech industry that makes me think it isn’t just going to lead the next decline—it’ll bungee jump:

  • Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) released its tablet to no interest whatsoever, then not only killed it, but was so full of sour grapes it pulled out of PCs as well;
  • Netflix (NFLX) has fallen from $305 to just under $220—and remember, the price hike that caused the drop hasn’t even taken effect yet;
  • and Google (GOOG), perfectly non-complacent with its stranglehold on low-end and emerging-market smartphones that run Android, decided to overpay for Motorola Mobility.

This just collectively strikes me as a group of folks who don’t have it together. And now that the one company that indisputably had it together for ten years loses its iconic CEO at a critical point in our economic and market cycles…

If Steve Jobs were this market’s Pale Rider, he wouldn’t need to mount a horse. There’s probably an app for that.

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