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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.