The Upgrade

We Still Have a Ton of Questions About Apple’s ‘Services’ Pivot

A very long event was short on concrete details

RRemember Monday well: It’s when Apple unabashedly shoved its services business into the spotlight, prioritizing content over the hardware the company has built its name and hundreds of billions of dollars in value on. It’s a smart move, because those service pockets are filled with money.

Services, which include things like the iOS App Store and iTunes, were a $5 billion business for Apple in 2015. Now, they account for well over $10.9 billion and climbing. Revenue from iPhone sales is still much larger, but Apple’s no longer breaking out specific iPhone unit sales numbers as it struggles with a flattening handset market. Services is growing by double digits almost by the quarter, and the iPhone — long Cupertino’s crown jewel — is not.

The future is services, and the key to that future is your propensity to pay Apple for every one of them. But the company hasn’t filled in key details — like, say, cost — about many of the products it announced at Monday’s Show Time event in California.

And there were many. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • News+: Apple’s magazine and newspaper subscription service includes 300-plus publications, though there are noticeable absences, like The New York Times. It also includes some popular newsletters — I see you, The Skimm.
  • Apple Card: Apple’s own digital (and physical!) credit card
  • Apple Arcade: A custom gaming platform full of exclusive games that you and your kids can play on any iPad, iPhone, or Apple TV
  • Apple TV app revamp: With the option of adding individual premium channels at any time without the need for a separate app or bundle
  • Apple TV+: Apple’s rather uninspiring name for its upcoming streaming app, where you’ll find a dizzying array of fresh, home-grown content from everyone from Steven Spielberg to Chris Evans to Alfre Woodard to Oprah Winfrey

In some instances, Apple dug deep into the details of pricing and availability. News+ is $9.99 a month for all-you-can-eat content from magazines like The New Yorker and Vanity Fair and newspapers like The Wall Street Journal. (Note, however, that the offerings from the Journal, at least, are limited: You don’t get the entire newspaper nor do you get access to a full archive.) News+ is available right now via an iOS update.

Apple Card, which will arrive this summer, is a Goldman Sachs/Mastercard-backed insta-digital credit card with the promise of two percent cash back on every purchase and three percent back on Apple purchases. I can understand why no consumer bank wanted to touch this since it competes directly with all of their rewards programs. The Apple Card comes with hardware of a sort: a numberless, CCV-less titanium card that looks like what Jony Ive would do if he were forced to design credit cards. (And maybe he was.)

With Apple Arcade, things get a bit fuzzier. The video game platform isn’t set to arrive until the fall, likely so that developer partners can have more time to prepare their games. We didn’t even get a subscription price.

The pattern continued with Apple TV. It felt like when you keep asking your waiter for water just as he looks the other way. So tantalizing, so refreshing, and just out of reach.

Be where your customers are, not just where you want them to be.

Apple’s heavy reliance on star power to promote what will likely be its most expensive service, Apple TV+, was frustrating as well. Sure, I enjoyed seeing Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Steve Carell, Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, Jason Momoa — you get the idea — all on stage, but I was thirsty for details about how Apple’s streaming service will fit into the Apple ecosystem and, especially, how Apple will compete with Netflix and Hulu on price.

Of course, Apple did pull one magic trick out of its hat: putting its updated Apple TV app on smart TVs from companies like Samsung, Sony, and LG and on competing streaming boxes from Roku and Amazon. (Apple had previously announced that the iTunes store would be available on some Samsung TVs, but the TV app is a different beast entirely.)

That move — which seems certain to devalue old Apple TV hardware, at least — fits with Apple’s new service-focused business: Be where your customers are and not just where you want them to be.

I do get the feeling, though, that Apple is still working out the kinks of this whole service-focused vision. While Tim Cook introduced virtually every single product, he never returned to the big list to explain how it would all hang together. More importantly, he never talked bundles. Apple will have to cook up some very smart bundles of offerings like Apple Music, AppleTV+, News+, Apple Arcade, and even Apple Card to sell customers on the value of what they’re getting while locking them into these new services. If you’re a Spotify user tempted by AppleTV+ and News+, maybe Apple can convert you with a bundle that includes Apple Music, adding more value for the company in the long run.

Apple’s growing role as a massive content curator will either create a powerful magnet for new customers or, perhaps, finally break existing ones.

Who knows? With some of these services arriving later than others, that may be the long-term goal. But success hinges on Apple winning customers directly from other services. Apple Card may have the excellent built-in cash back, but how will the company drive people to spend, say, another $9.99 or more a month for AppleTV+ if they’re also paying $15 a month for the family’s Apple Music plan along with nearly that much for Netflix?

Apple’s growing role as a massive content curator will either create a powerful magnet for new customers or, perhaps, finally break existing ones. There are only so many dollars anyone can pour into one company. Something like $40 to $60 a month, not counting the one-off channels I might subscribe to for Apple TV or the possible bill for the iPhone Upgrade Program, is going to add up.

There’s always been an advantage to living within the Apple ecosystem. My iCloud seamlessly ties together activities on my iPhone, iPad, and Mac. But Apple’s efforts to rope gaming, high-quality news content, and studio-level streaming content pushes Apple and possibly its customers outside that comfort zone and into a space where Apple will have to compete, in some cases, with more seasoned competitors.

“Many consumers are tired of subscriptions, but most will make a change for a strong value proposition,” says Patrick Moorhead, president and principal analyst for Moor Insights and Strategy.

“The challenge is that there weren’t enough details.”

The real wild card here is the Apple Card. Apple’s dive into the deep waters of financial technology could help make everything almost all right for cash-strapped Apple customers. Getting two percent on purchases is sweet, but getting three percent on all those Apple purchases is even sweeter — unless you’re freaked out that the company that makes your cellphone and your computer and your streaming device and maybe also your watch is now your bank as well.

Moorhead, though, was more sanguine about this opportunity for the company and for its consumers. “Apple Card was the most unique offering as Apple is trying to solve real problems like complexity, security, and indebtedness,” he says. Though you may be skeptical of the “indebtedness” part — it is a credit card, after all — the Apple Card will have a number of connected iOS features that help you monitor spending, among other things.

Make no mistake — all of this represents a major change. Apple is pulling off the hardware highway and onto the service road. It’s a smart, market-savvy move that should protect it from the further crumbling of the smartphone market. But to stay on the path, Apple has to bring all the pieces together and convince you to join them for the full-service ride.

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

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