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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.