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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.