The Upgrade

The Golden Age of the iPhone Is Ending

As the smartphone market changes, Apple may be losing its edge

Photo: sombatkapan/Getty

“Don’t bet against Apple.” That’s my go-to mantra when someone asks me about Apple’s future as a market leader, or the success of any new iPhone. If the company’s performance this quarter didn’t wow you, the next one probably will.

Yet the wind is clearly shifting for the iPhone, with intensifying worries about sales figures, diminishing global demand for smartphones overall, rumors that Apple won’t make the 5G leap for another year, and the company’s startling decision to stop disclosing unit sales for iOS devices and Macs in its financial reports. Though you’d be foolish to doubt Apple’s prospects, the status quo for its star product is, after many years, changing.

It’s no secret that much of Apple’s recent success has been driven by the now 11-year-old iPhone. Its rocket-like sales trajectory really began in 2009, after Apple introduced the App Store, a platform that transformed the iPhone from a beautiful gadget into a genuinely useful pocket device. Over the next decade, it narrowed our gaze from a wide vista to the distance between our eyes.

Apple and the iPhone are not immune to larger smartphone market forces.

Year-over-year iPhone sales grew by tens of millions, with post-holiday quarters setting monumental records. Looked at in isolation, it’s easy to think that Apple dominates the market, especially if you spend most of your time in the United States, where the iPhone has a commanding 39 percent market share compared to its nearest rival, Samsung, which has 25 percent of the U.S. market. In the global market, Apple trails Samsung and Huawei.

Apple and the iPhone are not immune to larger smartphone market forces. Smartphone sales growth has slowed over the last few years, and, perhaps thanks to market saturation, may even be in decline.

Tuong Nguyen, a senior principal analyst at Gartner, told me via email that although there’s been evidence of a slowing phone market for some time, Apple’s position as a higher-end brand and the overall prestige of the iPhone name may have shielded it a bit.

“Apple’s competitors have experienced it more acutely due to their broader exposure to the market,” Nguyen said.

Still, that Apple cachet, which was so obvious in the original iPhone, has gradually slipped away.

It’s hard to be special when the entire handset industry has coalesced around a handful of smartphone design principles. All-screen, notched displays with multiple cameras on the front and back are everywhere. A $549 OnePlus 6 looks, from the front, a lot like an $1,199 iPhone XS Max. Even the tiny Palm Phone is a knockoff of the iPhone X design.

To its credit, Apple’s iPhone doesn’t just look like a premium device as so many notched competitors do: It functions like one, too. The company commissions bespoke components to push processor, camera, and security performance. Still, Apple’s component lead threatens to crumble as competitors plan major mobile CPU upgrades and prepare for 5G networks. Apple may retain the raw performance lead in 2019 with, say, an A13 Bionic CPU. But if, as has been rumored, Apple passes on 5G at least until 2020, it will fall behind.

It seems unlikely that Apple can continue to charge premium prices for future handsets if the majority of the phone industry has a one-year head start on the fastest mobile connectivity technology.

Today, U.S. smartphone ownership sits at 95 percent. Another shiny screen isn’t going to cut it.

If consumers are, as Nguyen sees it, already chafing at Apple’s higher price tags for incremental updates, how will they feel in a year, when Apple is virtually the only major handset manufacturer not natively supporting 5G? Granted, 5G infrastructure will not be ready for the majority of the U.S. market in 2019 and, more than seven years ago, Apple rightly took the same slow approach with 4G.

In 2011, there were still questions about which flavor of 4G would survive, and the coverage across much of the U.S. was relatively anemic. With U.S. smartphone ownership in 2011 at only 35 percent (85 percent had cell phones), Apple could afford to wait on the relatively untested 4G. The leap from a basic feature phone to Apple’s all-touch, almost all-screen iPhone and its world of entertaining apps was enough for most feature phone users. Today, U.S. smartphone ownership sits at 95 percent. Another shiny screen isn’t going to cut it.

In addition, Apple’s Teflon-like ability to resist smartphone market contractions may be wearing thin. Reports of lackluster demand for all of its new phones have dogged the company for weeks, buttressed by rumors that Apple is scaling back orders from its third-party suppliers.

Apple has tried to beat back some of these rumors, claiming that the iPhone XR is now its best-selling model. However, Apple quickly undercut its own argument by, for the first time in my memory, offering substantial discounts on new models.

Apple’s previously weathered similar fear, uncertainty, and doubt (“FUD”), but rarely has the rumor mill had this kind of impact on the company’s stock price, which has taken an almost unprecedented 60-point slide since October.

These skittish investors could be wrong. Apple is still selling millions of iPhones, and I usually wait to reach any conclusions until the post-holiday earnings report, when blockbuster numbers inevitably erase rumors and concerns.

But that won’t be possible in 2019. As mentioned, Apple announced during its last earnings call that it will no longer break out unit sales for the iPhone, iPad, and Mac. While Mac and iPad sales have been shrinking for years, iPhone sales are typically the bellwether for Apple’s success.

During that earnings call, Luca Maestri, Apple’s chief financial officer, offered a compelling justification for the change:

The number of units sold in any 90-day period is not necessarily representative of the underlying strength of our business. Furthermore, a unit of sale is less relevant for us today than it was in the past, given the breadth of our portfolio and the wider sales price dispersion within any given product line.

He’s right. iPhone unit sales have never been broken out by model, and now there are seven to choose from. When Apple says it sold 45 million iPhones, we have no idea which model is driving the majority of sales, though sometimes Apple tells us. In addition, the cadence of product releases, specifically iPhone product releases, means down quarters in-between new releases are inevitable, but hardly illustrate long-term performance. Still, the lack of transparency is cause for concern.

“It’s certainly suspicious when vendors become much more opaque about their sales, especially if it is in an increasingly tough market environment,” Nguyen told me.

Apple’s decision to stop reporting iPhone unit sales is, I think, an attempt to shift attention away from the iPhone. It’s also an acknowledgment that, over time, iPhone sales will flatten and even diminish as other sectors, like the services business, rise to take its place. Apple’s services now include iCloud subscriptions, Apple Music, the App Store, and others.

On that same earnings call, Apple CEO Tim Cook defended the decision, saying that the installed base, basically the number of people with iOS devices, enjoys double-digit growth. More iOS users means more services customers, but it doesn’t necessarily mean new iPhone sales. Some Bank of America analysts argue that user growth is coming from used iPhone sales.

Putting iPhone sales in a black box doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve reached the end of iPhone innovation, though recent changes have been incremental — larger screens, for example. Yet Apple still charges more and more for its flagship handsets. It’s a canny strategy. Even as unit sales fall, the revenue numbers could look just as good, if not better.

Apple’s roadmap for the iPhone looks a lot like the future of all smartphones; beautiful, smart slabs with only their services and company logos to set them apart. It’s the end of an era, perhaps, but certainly far from the end of the premium handset.

Tech expert, journalist, social media commentator, amateur cartoonist and robotics fan.

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