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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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.