Has Apple Blown Its Big Chance?

11/13/2009 9:19 am EST

Focus: STOCKS

Jim Jubak

Founder and Editor, JubakPicks.com

While competitors have been losing market share, the company has failed to capitalize on an opportunity to achieve utter dominance, leaving the door open for its rivals.

I know the stock is an investor darling, trading near its all-time high.

And I know the company's products have tremendous consumer cachet—so much so that the company is able to sell its iPhones and iMacs for prices well above those charged by competitors.

But it still looks to me that Apple has missed its chance. It had a limited window of opportunity when competitors such as Microsoft couldn't do anything right, and it didn't turn that opening into a significant share of the personal computer market. It was first to market with a game-changing smart phone, but the company has pursued a high-end niche strategy with the iPhone that has left the door wide open for Google to grab for the mass market.

If this is as good as it gets for Apple, the company has no one to blame but itself. The opportunity was there, and Apple didn't exploit it as ruthlessly or as relentlessly as it needed to.

How Competitors Stumbled

Here's where the company could've seized a greater advantage:

A major competitor, Microsoft, produced a stink bomb of an operating system. Windows Vista was so terrible that 80% of the companies running Microsoft's aging predecessor operating system, Windows XP, chose not to upgrade. And while Microsoft was busy issuing embarrassing security patch after security patch, before and after Vista's release, Apple was rolling out elegant version after version of its operating system.
 
Meanwhile, major PC makers lost their way. Dell, for example, has bled market share recently. According to market analysts Gartner and IDC, Dell's share of the personal computer market has dropped almost 19% in the past year.

And what happened to Apple's market share for personal computers while Microsoft was busy shooting itself in bothfeet and every other appendage it could aim a marketing message at? And while PC makers couldn't come up with anything more revolutionary than the idea that computers could come in colors instead of just Dell gray?

Well, Apple did reverse a decline that had its personal computers headed from niche product to museum curiosity. Yes, Apple has always held that market share didn't matter as much as profitability, but that attitude seemed increasingly like a defensive self-justification as its market share bottomed near 3%.

Apple's revival has been remarkable. Today, depending on which market research company you believe, Apple has somewhere between 7.6% and 8.7% of the market for personal computers. The company is either number four behind Acer or number five behind Toshiba.

Number four or number five? That's all that you get from the competitive opportunity of several lifetimes?
 
Counteroffensive Is Just Getting Started

Shouldn't Apple have been more aggressive about changing the game while its opponents were curled up in the fetal position? Wasn't the goal, after all, global domination and not just ego-gratifying revival meetings of the faithful?

You think I'm kidding? You say Apple didn't need to wipe the floor with the competition? You say that Apple CEO Steve Jobs didn't need to turn Microsoft into a Harvard Business School case study in how a company could squander market dominance?

I think you're dead wrong. Because the counteroffensive is just beginning, and it's going to be fierce.

First, Windows 7 will remove some of the marketing stigma from the PC.

Microsoft and the rest of the PC industry don't have to persuade core Mac enthusiasts to give up their beautiful machines with their great operating systems. (Hey, I work on both PCs and Macs, and I know—I feel—the difference.) Those folks won't give up their Macs until Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer pries them from their cold, dead fingers.

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But remember, we know from the bad old days that these Mac die-hards are only enough to give Apple a 5% or so market share.

All Windows 7 has to do is be good enough so that the economics of PC-versus-Mac purchasing can come into play.

On a recent morning, for example, I got an E-mail from Hewlett-Packard offering an all-in-one PC, the HP Pavilion MS214. It looks like the iconic iMac, with the guts of the computer buried in a screen that rests on an elegant metal stand. It's an effort to duplicate the iMac on every feature but price: The PC sells for $599. The cheapest iMac on the Apple Store's Web site goes for $1,199.

Exactly how bad does Windows 7 have to be before a buyer will overlook that $600 price difference?

(For more on the timing of the corporate adoption of Windows 7, see my October 7 post. For why I think it's time to buy Microsoft stock, see my July 24 buy.)

The Smartphone Battleground

The counterattack in the smartphone space has started, too, although this time it's Google rather than Microsoft that's leading the charge.

Because Apple decided to sell the iPhone in the United States through just one cellular operator, AT&T, it left the door wide open to a phone that's not quite as polished in its integration of hardware and software as the iPhone, but that is, like Windows 7, good enough.

I'm talking here about phones built on Google's Android operating system, such as Motorola's Droid.

I wouldn't call this phone an iPhone killer. When I tested the Motorola at my local Verizon store in the days after its release, the phone felt like a brick in my hand (that's not good, in case you were wondering), and the keyboard was close to useless. Also, inexplicably (well, it's not exactly inexplicable if you've followed the self-destruction of Motorola's once-great cellular phone business), the phone comes with a paltry 256 megabytes of memory for applications. That means the phone simply won't run most of the 10,000 or so applications available for Android phones. (By contrast, there are 80,000 or so apps for the iPhone.)

But Apple shouldn't get too comfortable. The iPhone's greatest strength is Apple's control over the hardware and software that produce what is, for the computer and consumer electronics world, an amazingly seamless integration. That's also the iPhone's great weakness. Because Apple controls the software and hardware on the iPhone, that company is the source of all iPhone improvements. If it stumbles, the iPhone stumbles.

Droid phones, in contrast, are built on an open-source platform, which means anyone can build one. So Motorola's Droid doesn't carry the Droid banners alone. If you go to the Verizon store, you can buy an HTC Droid Eris. It feels better in the hand than the Motorola, and it has a usable touch-screen keyboard.

The phone isn't perfect. It's won't play iTunes, and the MP3 player is, well, less than optimal, shall we say. But it's a reasonable contender. It costs just $199 with a one-year contract and $100 rebate. And it works on Verizon's network (and others), rather than being restricted to the comparatively terrible AT&T network. Oh, and it has a replaceable battery. The iPhone doesn't.

Does Apple Know Time Is Limited?

Apple hasn't lost the smartphone battle by any means. But if I were an Apple shareholder right now, I'd like to see signs that the company understands it's got only a limited chance to crush the competition.

If the iPhone remains restricted to the AT&T network, Verizon will do everything it can to make sure the Droid grows up to be a solid competitor. Apple could head that off by bringing Verizon into the iPhone game.

Apple could eliminate the silly quirks that have given Droid makers a chance to run the "Droid does, iPhone doesn't" campaign. Why no replaceable battery on an iPhone? I'm sure Apple has a raft of reasons, but in a competitive war, you don't hand an advantage like that to the enemy.

The big problem, however, for Apple shareholders is that any real competition for the iPhone is going to eat into Apple's high margins. That happens all the time in technology markets and to market leaders. The truly great long-term competitors such as Toyota Motor know that as a product matures, you have to take lower margins, build up the efficiency of your operations on the back of volume, and grab market share as hard as you can.

That's never been Apple's strategy. It will be interesting—to those of us who don't own Apple stock—to see if Apple does it differently this time with the iPhone.

At the time of publication, Jim Jubak owned shares of the following company mentioned in this column: Microsoft.

Jim Jubak has been writing "Jubak's Journal" and tracking the performance of his market-beating Jubak's Picks portfolio since 1997 on MSN Money. He is the author of a new book, The Jubak Picks, and he writes the Jubak Picks blog. He is also the senior markets editor at MoneyShow.com.

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