Apple reports record quarter, stocks plummet

Sales of Macs down 18 per cent, iPad sales up nearly 50 per cent, iPhone sales up 30 per cent.

Apple's released its quarterly earnings yesterday, and they weren't great. Although, in Apple's case, "not great" still means that revenue grew 18 per cent year on year to $54.5bn, profits hovered at $13.1bn, and its financial year 2012 is the largest corporate earnings year in history. Twitter loves to talk about first-world problems — this is "biggest-company problems" of the highest order.

Sales of Macs were down 18 per cent, but iPad sales had grown by nearly 50 per cent, and iPhone sales by almost 30 per cent. The iPhone 5 was the best-selling smartphone worldwide, and the astronomical mark-up on it — it generates a 55 per cent profit margin for the company — means that it will be jealously guarding that market for some time.

Still, the narrative is that Apple's had a bad quarter (because they really ought to own a small country by now, and their failure not to do so is frankly embarrassing), and so in after-hours trading, stocks were down 10 per cent.

The diagnosis seems to be that a hefty chunk of the decoupling of revenue and growth was down to the much-reduced profit margins of the iPad Mini. Apple's profit from sales of the 7 inch iPad is much lower than it gets from sales of the full-size one (although that hasn't stopped people arguing that it's making a mistake to charge so much for it, or not to put a vastly expensive retina display on it), so to the extent that its growth is because of entering that new market, its profit share will fall.

Worse for the company is that there is some evidence the mini is cannibalising sales of the full-size iPad. Certainly, respected bloggers like Marco Arment and John Gruber report preferring their minis to their old iPads, and they would seem to be the target market for the full-power device.

But if its problems stem from a growing presence in low-margin markets, then it's rather odd that the proposed solutions are… growing their presence in low-margin markets. Apple regularly comes under pressure for their low and declining share of the smartphone market — currently at around 20 per cent — with the implication that its strategy of chasing profit over raw sales is wrong. Reports that the company is attempting to build a low-price iPhone which would debut in late 2013 suggest that the company is taking the recommendation to heart.

But it seems that if it does bring out a successful low-margin entry level device, it will be slammed for declining profit; if it doesn't, it will be slammed for declining market share. Meanwhile, whatever the company does, it will be raking money in hand-over-fist. Maybe the problem lies with the people doing the slamming?

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit