Apple's secret weakness: its margins aren't as high as you think

55 per cent profit margins sounds like a lot, but someone's got to pay for iOS.

Working my way through AnandTech's mighty iPhone 5 review (and I mean mighty: this thing weighs in at just over 20,000 words), a paragraph jumped out at me. Anand Shimpi writes:

Ironically enough, if Apple’s competitors would significantly undercut Apple (it doesn’t cost $599 - $799 to build a modern smartphone) I don’t know that the formula would be able to work for Apple in the long run (Apple needs high margins to pay for OS, software and silicon development, all of which are internalized by Apple and none of which burden most of its competitors).

This is the flip-side of Apple's much-vaunted vertical integration. The company notoriously earns margins of 55 per cent on the iPhone 5, and that's often taken to mean that its profitability is entirely a result of its ability to charge far above its competitors (even though that's not entirely true any more either).

But while the company charges 55 per cent more than it costs to build each iPhone, it has a lot of fixed costs. It develops its own OS from scratch (while its competitors piggy-back off Google), and is increasingly moving to its own processor development and fabrication as well. That money has to come from somewhere.

Of course, the company remains astonishingly profitable even after the costs of development are accounted for, so starving it out will take a while. But it isn't quite as invulnerable to cost pressures as many think, and that could be something which competitors — particularly Samsung, which is the only other smartphone manufacturer to have nearly enough profit to fight that battle — could use to their advantage.

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 relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.