How Apple deploys its cash

It's often said that Apple is sitting on too large a horde of cash, that if it can't come up with ways to deploy that cash that exceed its own internal rates of return or other such hurdles (to use finance speak), it should return that cash to shareholders.

On Quora, an anonymous account posted an interesting take on why Apple accumulates so much cash and how it deploys that as a strategic weapon.

When new component technologies (touchscreens, chips, LED displays) first come out, they are very expensive to produce, and building a factory that can produce them in mass quantities is even more expensive.  Oftentimes, the upfront capital expenditure can be so huge and the margins are small enough (and shrink over time as the component is rapidly commoditized) that the companies who would build these factories cannot raise sufficient investment capital to cover the costs.

What Apple does is use its cash hoard to pay for the construction cost (or a significant fraction of it) of the factory in exchange for exclusive rights to the output production of the factory for a set period of time (maybe 6 - 36 months), and then for a discounted rate afterwards.  This yields two advantages:

  1. Apple has access to new component technology months or years before its rivals.  This allows it to release groundbreaking products that are actually impossible to duplicate.  Remember how for up to a year or so after the introduction of the iPhone, none of the would-be iPhone clones could even get a capacitive touchscreen to work as well as the iPhone's?  It wasn't just the software - Apple simply has access to new components earlier, before anyone else in the world can gain access to it in mass quantities to make a consumer device.  One extraordinary example of this is the aluminum machining technology used to make Apple's laptops - this remains a trade secret that Apple continues to have exclusive access to and allows them to make laptops with (for now) unsurpassed strength and lightness.
  2. Eventually its competitors catch up in component production technology, but by then Apple has their arrangement in place whereby it can source those parts at a lower cost due to the discounted rate they have negotiated with the (now) most-experienced and skilled provider of those parts - who has probably also brought his production costs down too.  This discount is also potentially subsidized by its competitors buying those same parts from that provider - the part is now commoditized so the factory is allowed to produce them for all buyers, but Apple gets special pricing.

For me this recalls sushi restaurants. When I first graduated college and finally had enough money to eat sushi regularly, I'd sit at the bar at a sushi restaurant and watch the sushi chef cutting the fish and wonder what was so difficult about what they were doing. After watching a few of them, I felt like I could climb over the counter and assemble a reasonably good piece of sushi myself.

After watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi, I realized that watching a chef prepare a piece of sushi was just the tip of the iceberg, that much of what set one sushi restaurant apart from another was the supply chain, the relationships with the right buyers and suppliers and fishmongers that helped secure the best ingredients.

This strikes me as the same way most people underestimate Apple. They see the aesthetics of the final product, the software or hardware design of an iPhone or a MacBook air, and they don't see any sustainable competitive advantage. All of that can be copied, they think.

Leaving aside the fact that in hardware design if you have to copy someone else in technology you're already one generation behind, what people often fail to see (or can't, given Apple's secrecy) is the massive supply chain edifice below the water's surface. Scaling in software may be less of a problem for David than it once was, but in hardware it pays to be Goliath. 

Apple strategy and disruption

The Businessweek interview with Tim Cook is fascinating because it's not often you get to hear the tech titans talking about each other.  CEO's of most tech companies are fairly guarded when speaking to the press, and most won't address the competition head on, but Cook didn't shirk those subjects.

I think if I bought [an Android tablet] and used it, and I thought that was a tablet experience, I’m not sure I would ever buy another tablet. The responsiveness isn’t there. The basic touch is really off. The app experience is a stretched-out smartphone kind of experience. It’s not an optimized experience. However, that said, I have always said that the tablet market was going to surpass the PC market. I was saying that well before it was viewed to be sane to say that. It’s clear that we’re 24 months away from that.

On Android's market share: 

Has Android’s rise in market share surprised you in the time that it’s happened?

I don’t think of Android as one thing. Most people do. I mean, from a consumer point of view, if you look at what Amazon (AMZN) does with Android, forget the name Android for a minute. If you’re coming down from a different planet and you were going to name it, you wouldn’t name it the same thing as what another company does. If you compared that to what Samsung (005930:KS) does, I’m not sure you would name that the same thing either.

I think that the importance of that is overplayed. The truth is that there are more people using iOS 6 than there is any version of Android. And in days from now, iOS 7 will be the most popular mobile operating system. And so what does it really mean at the end of the day to show these share numbers and combine all of these disparate things as if they’re one thing? I’m not so sure it has a great meaning to it at the end of the day.

So your question, does it surprise me? I don’t look at it in the same way as you might. I think the way a consumer looks at this is different. Does a consumer that’s buying a Kindle think about it being an Android? Probably not. And so I think that’s a bit different than where Microsoft (MSFT) and Windows was.

On Android's OS fragmentation:

What’s your take on Android’s many versions? The “fragmentation” issue.

It’s a growing problem.

From a functional level?

Yes. And it’s just not growing in the—it’s not like a baby that becomes an infant. It’s not like that. It’s an exponential. It’s a compounding problem. And think about all these people that they’re leaving behind from a customer point of view. People do hold on. Most people hold on to their phones a couple of years. They enter a contract and honor that contract and then upgrade after that two-year period. So in essence, by the time they buy the phone, many of these operating systems are old. They’re not the latest ones by the time people buy. And so by the time they exit, they’re using an operating system that’s three or four years old. That would be like me right now having in my pocket iOS 3. I can’t imagine it.

It’s not because it was bad. It’s just because the world has changed and there is so much more. And so anyway, I think it is a growing issue. It will show up in developers. It will show up for people that no longer have access to certain apps. It will show up in security issues, because if you’re not moving your customer base to the latest version, then you have to go back and plug holes in all of this old stuff, and people don’t really do that to a great degree. So they are more susceptible to issues.

It just shows up in—I mean, name it. And that issue grows, and because the population is growing, it becomes bigger and bigger and bigger. So we’ll see.

On market share generally:

While these phones represent the high end of the industry, there’s another part of the industry that’s racing toward the bottom. Chinese manufacturers, Indian manufacturers, $100 phones, $150 phones. What do you think about that? What does that mean for Apple?

I think it’s important that we grow, but I don’t measure our success in unit market share. So if there are a lot of $69 tablets sold that you’re just pounding on to get something to work and get some responsiveness, and it’s thick and fat and just a terrible experience, I don’t really weigh that unit of share like I do a different unit of share. I don’t weigh them to be equivalent.

So I think in most markets in consumer electronics, there’s always a large junk part of the market. We’re not in the junk business. We don’t want to make something for that. What we want to do is make a really great product and provide a great experience. And I’m sure we’ll get enough customers that want to buy that. We want to please them.

That other business, it’s not something—we don’t spend our time obsessed of how to make a product for that because that’s just not who we are and what we’re focused on.

The most common questions about Apple: why don't they come out with a lower price iPhone for non-subsidized markets? Why do they leave a price umbrella in phones and tablets? Is Android's growing market share concerning? Cook took them all head on and seems, at least to me, very candid. The next time someone poses these questions again they can just reference this interview.

The Cook interview pairs nicely with the Ben Thompson post What Clayton Christensen Got Wrong. Christensen is the intellectual of the moment in technology the past several years with his theories of disruption from his classic text The Innovator's Dilemma. Disruption has proven to have great explanatory power in many sectors of the technology industry. But Christensen has been wrong, repeatedly, about Apple's susceptibility to disruption. Many a time he has predicted Apple will be bitten at the heels, and time after time they've been fine.

Thompson believes he knows why. 

In the case of low-end disruption, the rational buyer considers the superior integrated offering and the inferior (but still good) modular offering, decides the latter is “good enough,” and buys it because it is cheaper. The buyer knows the integrated offering is better, but the buyer is unwilling to pay a premium for features the buyer does not need.

-----

EVERY ATTRIBUTE THAT MATTERS CAN NOT BE DOCUMENTED AND MEASURED

The attribute most valued by consumers, assuming a product is at least in the general vicinity of a need, is ease-of-use. It’s not the only one – again, doing a job-that-needs-done is most important – but all things being equal, consumers prefer a superior user experience.

What is interesting about this attribute is that it is impossible to overshoot.

Given how often the tech industry rushes to apply Christensen's theories of disruption (as in most walks of life, disruption is the hammer through which the tech industry sees an infinity of naials), Thompson's article is a must read. 

The sound of iOS 7

I've been running iOS 7 on my iPhone for about a month now, largely for testing our iOS 7 compatible version of Flipboard, and just at noticeable as the visual and spatial navigation changes are the updated sounds and ringtones. It's like the iPhone got a new voice. 

Alan Hanson at The Awl reviews the top 5 new ringtones of iOS 7.  On Constellation:

It is twilight. You are living inside of a prism beam. You are slowly falling through a prism beam without worry and with a satiated stomach. All of your childhood pets are running toward you in slow motion and they are hungry for your love. Your favorite blanket is playing your favorite instrument on a bed of newly fallen autumn leaves. Insects do not exist and yet, the ecosystem remains beautifully balanced. Your boss who respects you very much enters your line of vision and unrolls a long scroll. She reads from the scroll. She reads all of your favorite words, slowly, then disintegrates and is carried off by a warm wind. You have never had a parking ticket. Your dentist is in awe of your brushing habits.

If you think that sounds overblown, go listen to Constellation . I've never switched from the default ringtone before iOS 7 came along, but now the default ringtone has even changed. RIP Marimba, you were the reigning rooster's crow of a digital generation.

I never browsed the list of ringtones in my iPhone in much detail before, but the Awl article raised my curiosity. Many of the new options, and there are many, strike me as more New Agey in nature. Uplift could be the start of an Enya song.  Many of the are more melodic and tune-like than alert-based in nature. For once, I may opt for one of the former.

The price game

When Ron Johnson took over as CEO of J. C. Penney, one of his most sweeping changes was to move away from the constant sales and coupons to a more straightforward pricing model. Not surprising considering he came from Apple where they hold one sale a year, on Black Friday, and not even a great one at that.

But J. C. Penney is not Apple, and the price game each is playing is different.

Mr. Johnson explained a similar logic when he moved the chain toward simplified pricing. In January 2012, while introducing his new plan to investors, the press and vendors, Mr. Johnson said that in the previous year, the company held 590 sales events; almost three-quarters of the stuff it sold was marked down 50 percent or more.

But here’s the thing: customers weren’t actually paying less. The chain just kept raising the prices that customers saw on the racks, and then discounted those prices during promotions. Why keep playing a game that is expensive and troublesome for the seller and a mirage for the consumer?

J. C. Penney was not the first retailer to be astonished by the brilliance of this realization. In 2006, Macy’s had a similar idea after acquiring the coupon-happy May department stores. It decided to “retrain” those customers, as its chief financial officer put it at the time, by drastically cutting coupons. By 2007, it had abandoned that strategy. Its chief executive acknowledged that pulling back on coupons was Macy’s biggest mistake in its acquisition.

Even Walmart, which actually does pull off the trick of “everyday low prices” in its domestic stores, is finding it hard to convert consumers to a single-price model in countries like Brazil and China, where retailers give deep discounts on a few main products, then mark up the rest, said Mark Wiltamuth, an analyst at Morgan Stanley.

The problem, economists and marketing experts say, is that consumers are conditioned to wait for deals and sales, partly because they do not have a good sense of how much an item should be worth to them and need cues to figure that out.

Just having a generically fair or low price, as Penney did, said Alexander Chernev, a marketing professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, assumes that consumers have some context for how much items should cost. But they don’t.

Price strategy has to be supported throughout the organization. For Apple to have one price for its items means they must enforce that price through all of its distribution partners, and it must also create advertising that reinforces the premium quality of the goods. And of course, the products must be good enough to justify a no discount policy.

One thing is for certain: once you go sale, it's tough to go back (once you go red, it's hard to go black?). Companies that consider a sale or discount strategy should do so carefully. Once customers expect a regular cadence of sales or discounts (e.g. Restoration Hardware's bi-annual bath sales, or Bed Bath and Beyond's ubiquitous 20% off coupons) they orient their entire behavior around that pattern and won't easily be persuaded to buy at full price ever again.

A surprising corporate giant

What company, according to Fortune, is the eighth largest employer in the world, with over 549,000 employees globally?

The answer shocked me: Volkswagen. That's just the tip of the iceberg in terms of fascinating tidbits from this mini profile.

Efficiency experts will tell you that on an employee-per-vehicle basis, Volkswagen looks hopelessly inefficient. Financial analysts will tell you that the company woefully trails its competitors on a revenue-per-employee basis. But VW will tell you that it makes more money than any other automaker – by far.

While VW's stated goal is to become the world's largest car company by 2018, it's already there if you measure it by revenue and profits. Its revenue of $200 billion is greater than every other OEM. Last year's operating profit of $14 billion is the kind of performance you expect from Big Oil companies, not automakers.

Last year's operating profit of $14 billion is the kind of performance you expect from Big Oil companies, not automakers.

How can this be possible? How can VW look so uncompetitive from a productivity standpoint, yet out-earn all of its competitors?

Ah, that's the magic of VW's corporate structure. While business schools teach future MBAs that centralized operations can cut cost by eliminating overlapping work and duplication, VW maintains strongly decentralized operations with lots of overlap. While business schools preach the benefits of outsourcing to cut cost, VW is very vertically integrated.

Anytime a car company buys a component from a supplier, that supplier has to charge a profit. If an automaker can make those components in-house, it gets to keep that profit. VW is building a lot of components in-house.

To dominate you need multiple brands, and VW has more than anyone else.

If an automaker truly wants to dominate the market, it has to accept a certain amount of overlap and duplication. It just goes with the territory. To dominate you need multiple brands, and VW has more than anyone else, which admittedly overlap at the edges. But to VW they are more than just brands.

All of VW's brands (VW, Audi, Seat, Skoda, Bentley, Lamborghini, Ducati, Porsche, Bugatti, MAN, Scania, and VW Commercial) are treated as stand-alone companies. They have their own boards of directors, their own profit & loss statements, and their own annual reports. They even have their own separate design, engineering and manufacturing facilities. Yes, they do share some platforms and powertrains and purchasing, but other than that they're on their own.

Anyone who works in technology will hear an echo in much of this strategy. Volkswagen's model of of running all its brands as independent companies is an example how the biggest tech companies try to push decision-making to the edges, to the teams running a variety of product lines, as a way of trying to remain entrepreneurial, innovative, and nimble. 

The way Volkswagen has vertically integrated is reminiscent of the way Apple has, over time, taken over more and more of the computing value chain, down to opening their own retail stores. Given how Samsung is also vertically integrating and competing head on with Apple in the mobile computing market, it would be surprising if Apple didn't stop sourcing chips from Samsung and take their business elsewhere, to a partner less vertically integrated, like Taiwan Semiconductor.

Volkswagen, by dint of its vertical integration, can capture value wherever it occurs in the value chain, and as the sources of value shift as it often does over the life cycle of technology products, Volkswagen retains its cut. On a related note, look at the last chart on this post at Asymco. Stunningly, Samsung makes more operating income from Android than Google is! In this mobile computing war, Samsung is making money off of both Google and Apple. After Apple, it's difficult to name another company that has profited more from the mobile computing revolution.

Volkswagen is the answer to the subject of this post, but Samsung is nearly as shocking a dark horse of a corporate behemoth.

Amazon, Apple, and the beauty of low margins

[As always, I preface any discussion of Amazon and Apple by noting that I own some stock in both companies, and that I worked at Amazon from 1997 to 2004]

A lot of folks, especially Apple supporters, like to characterize Amazon as irrational, even crazy, for its willingness to live with low margins. It must be frustrating to compete with a company like that. But to call their strategy irrational or to believe they want to be a non-profit is a dangerous misreading of what they're all about.

It's been years since I worked there, so this is largely speculation on my part, but I believe Amazon is anything but irrational when it comes to how they think about margins. I believe it's a calculated strategy on their part, and anyone competing with them had best understand it.

As with people, I think companies can be more comfortable playing certain styles, much like certain players are more suited for a particular style of offense, like Mike D'Antoni's in the NBA or Chip Kelly's in football. Amazon's low margin strategy is one they are comfortable with because it sprung from the company's very origin. Amazon began in the bookselling business, and some of its earliest and most crucial advantages against incumbents like Barnes and Noble were best expressed with thinner margins.

One of online retail's main advantage was, of course, being able to forego expensive physical storefronts. With one and then two distribution centers total in the early years, Amazon essentially just had two "storefronts" to stock with book SKU's, whereas Barnes and Noble had to guess how to allocate SKU's across hundreds of stores all over the country, all necessitating long leases. A few Amazon editors could recommend books to all Amazon customers, whereas Barnes and Noble had to staff each of their individual stores with sales clerks. 

More importantly, Amazon's inventory flow was drastically more efficient than that of Barnes and Noble. Amazon didn't have to carry inventory on really slow-selling SKU's, they could wait until a customer had ordered it and then drop-ship it from the distributor. If Amazon wanted to ship one of those SKU's themselves, customers generally had the patience to wait longer for them since those slow-turning SKU's didn't earn shelf space at the local Barnes and Noble anyway.

Almost all customers paid by credit card, so Amazon would receive payment in a day. But they didn't pay the average distributor or publisher for 90 days for books they purchased. This gave Amazon a magical financial quality called a negative operating cycle. With every book sale, Amazon got cash it could hang on to for up weeks on end (in practice it wasn't actually 89 days of float since Amazon did purchase some high velocity selling books ahead of time). The more Amazon grew, the more cash it banked. Amazon was turning its inventory 30, 40 times a year, whereas companies like Barnes and Noble were sweating to turn their inventory twice a year. Most people just look at a company's margins and judge the quality of the business model based on that, but the cash flow characteristics of the business can make one company a far more valuable company than another with the exact same operating margin. Amazon could have had a margin of zero and still made money.

At Amazon we were ruthlessly focused on squeezing inefficiency out of every part of the business, especially the variable ones that affected every purchase. How could we get a book from the shelf into the hands of the customer more cheaply? How could we reduce the number of customer contacts per order for our customer service team? Could we offload some human customer service contact to cheaper online self-service methods while improving customer satisfaction? How could we negotiate steeper discounts on the books themselves? For each book SKU, was it more economical to purchase ahead of sales in bulk for steeper discounts and faster shipping or to purchase only when a customer placed an order and risk a longer delay in shipping? How could we allocate inventory among our distribution centers to increase the likelihood that all items in an order shipped from the same distribution center, minimizing our shipping costs? How could we organize all the Amazon shipments ready for delivery in a way that made lives easier on our shipping partners like the USPS and UPS, and then how could we use that to negotiate cheaper shipping rates? Did we need so many human editors reviewing books, or were customer reviews sufficient?

The type of operational efficiency Amazon rose to in those days is not something another company can duplicate overnight. It came on top of the inherent cost advantages of online commerce over physical commerce. So much of Amazon's competitive advantage in those days came from operational efficiency. You can choose to leverage that strength in two ways. One is you match your competitor on pricing and just earn higher margins. But the other, the way Amazon has always tended to favor, is to lower prices, to thin the oxygen for your competitors.

If you have bigger lungs than your competitor, all things being equal, force them to compete in a contest where oxygen is the crucial limiter. If your opponent can't swim, you make them compete in water. If they dislike the cold, set the contest in the winter, on a tundra. You can romanticize all of this by quoting Sun Tzu, but it's just common sense.

I worked on the launch of the Amazon Video store, Amazon's third product after books and music. At the time of the launch, DVDs had just launched as a product category a short while earlier, so the store carried both VHS tapes and DVDs. The day Amazon launched its video store, the top DVD store on the web at the time, I think it was DVD Empire, lowered its prices across the board, raising its average discount from 30% off to 50% off DVDs.

This forced our hand immediately. Selling DVDs at 50% off would mean selling those titles at a loss. We had planned to match their 30% discount, and now we were being out-priced by the market leader on our first day of operation, and just before the heart of the holiday sales season to boot (it was November, 1998).

We convened a quick emergency huddle, but it didn't take long to come to a decision. We'd match the 50% off. We had to. Our leading opponent had challenged us to a game of who can hold your breath longer. We were confident in our lung capacity. They only sold DVDs whereas we had the security of a giant books and music business buttressing our revenues.

After a few weeks, DVD Empire blinked. They had to. Sometime later, I can't remember how long it was, DVD Empire rebranded, tried expanding to sell adult DVDs, then went out of business. There were other DVD-only retailers online at the time, but none from that period survived. I doubt any online retailer selling only DVDs still exists.

Attacking the market with a low margin strategy has other benefits, though, ones often overlooked or undervalued. For one thing, it strongly deters others from entering your market. Study disruption in most businesses and it almost always comes from the low end. Some competitor grabs a foothold on the bottom rung of the ladder and pulls itself upstream. But if you're already sitting on that lowest rung as the incumbent, it's tough for a disruptor to cling to anything to gain traction.

An incumbent with high margins, especially in technology, is like a deer that wears a bullseye on its flank. Assuming a company doesn't have a monopoly, its high margin structure screams for a competitor to come in and compete on price, if nothing else, and it also hints at potential complacency. If the company is public, how willing will they be to lower their own margins and take a beating on their public valuation?

Because technology, both hardware and software, tends to operate on an annual update cycle, every year you have to worry about a competitor leapfrogging you in that cycle. One mistake and you can see a huge shift in customers to a competitor.

Not having to sweat a constant onslaught of new competitors is really underrated. You can allocate your best employees to explore new lines of business, you can count on a consistent flow of cash from your more mature product or service lines, and you can focus your management team on offense. In contrast, most technology companies live in constant fear that they'll be disrupted with every product or service refresh. The slightest misstep can turn a stock market darling into a company struggling for its very existence.

Amazon's core retail business is, I'd argue, still very secure. I can't think of a tech retail competitor that is a legitimate threat to Amazon in selling most physical goods. Where Amazon is most vulnerable in retail is those areas where the game shifted on them, and that's in the media lines where physical books, CDs, and DVDs are being digitized. Since no physical product must be transported through a distribution system, Amazon's operational efficiency advantages there are less effective against competition. But in the arena of buying something online and having a box delivered to your doorstep, who really scares Amazon?

Another advantage to low margin models is increased customer loyalty. Most of the products Amazon sells are commodity items. It's not like buying one brand of car versus another, where you a variety of subjective judgements affect the consumer's choice. The Avengers Blu-ray disc you buy from Amazon is the same one you'll find at Wal-Mart or Best Buy. In that world, the lowest price tends to win. In the early years, Amazon routinely lowered either product pricing or shipping pricing. Very few companies lower their prices permanently as time goes by except on depreciating goods, like computers whose value decreases as newer, faster models hit the market.

If you're the low-cost leader, customers will forgive a lot of sins. That margin of error, like the competitive moat, buys you peace of mind. I could spend time price-shopping every item on Amazon, but these days, I don't really bother. Amazon's website design is not going to win any design awards, it's a bit of a Frankensteinian assemblage thanks to distributed design decisions, but it's fast, the shipping is cheap or free, the customer service is fantastic, and oh, did I mention, their prices are great! There is value in being the site of first and last resort for customers.

If you want to jump into competition with Amazon, you can't just match Amazon, you have to leapfrog them. But they've left almost no price umbrella for you to sneak under, so you have to both match them in price and then blow them away on the user experience side to even get customers to think about switching. Who has the capital and wherewithal to play that exceedingly unpleasant, unprofitable game? You can only win that game at scale, and Amazon already achieved it.

Smart companies compete first by playing to their strengths, but Amazon also cleaves to a low margin strategy, I believe, because it's demonstrated the advantages noted above. Amazon could try to build a high margin tablet to compete with Apple, but why would they? How have companies that have tried to challenge Apple with design and build quality fared these past few years? Why would you try to challenge Apple in the areas it is strongest at?

In a recent interview, Reed Hastings claimed Amazon was spending $1 billion a year on licensing streaming video for Amazon Instant Video. Hastings is negotiating for much of the same content, I know he knows what that content costs, and since I used to work at Hulu, I can vouch for how easy it would be to burn through a billion dollars building up a substantial streaming video library. I do think Amazon may have overpaid as a consequence of wanting to come in strong and make a big play without as much pricing information as Netflix and Hulu have accumulated over the years, but it strikes me as a classic tactic out of the Amazon low end disruption playbook.

[In this world of digital video, this strategy is much more difficult to execute because there is no fixed price on licensing episodes of TV shows and libraries of movies. The information asymmetry works in favor of the content providers. Netflix had a great advantage when First Sale Doctrine permitted them to buy DVDs at the same wholesale price as any retailer since it capped their costs. But in the TV/movie licensing world, the content owner can constantly adjust their price to squeeze almost every last drop of margin from the distributor as you can't find perfect substitutes for the goods being offered. Ask TV networks if they make any money licensing NFL, NBA, and MLB games for broadcast. Hint: the answer is no. Ask companies like Apple and Spotify if they're making healthy margins selling digital music. Ask Netflix or Amazon if licensing TV shows and movies for digital streaming is more or less profitable than the days of selling or renting physical media. In the digital world, transfer pricing can be even more of a cruel mistress. 

Most companies building profitable ecosystems in the digital world are making their profits elsewhere using the digital media as a loss leader. Apple on its hardware, for example, or TV networks trying to use sports contests to cross-promote their other TV programs.]

Apple took some grief last quarter for seeing some margin depression, but in and of itself, I don't see that as a bad sign. In fact, I was disappointed that Apple didn't price the iPad Mini lower out of the gate. Of course, they're largely sold out through the holidays, so pricing it lower means leaving money on the table in the conventional microeconomic analysis.

But in the long run, if you look at every iPad purchaser as a new subscriber to the Apple ecosystem of hardware and software services, there's value in fighting for every additional user versus Google or Amazon in the low end tablet market. Most customers who buy a low end tablet will stay in that producer's ecosystem for a while, at least a year. Graph the low end market and you see it trending towards zero, to that day when an Amazon or a Google will likely offer you a low end tablet for free, perhaps as part of your Amazon Prime subscription or if you agree to pay for Google Drive.

That's a world in which the switching costs are set by the software ecosystem of each of those companies, not the hardware. It's why Apple lovers are right to fret about iCloud and its underwhelming mail, storage, and calendaring services and substandard reliability, why Amazon might spend a billion dollars licensing videos, why Google tried so hard to switch people over to Google+. They're all looking for a path to software lockin, a more defensible moat.

Apple still is the margin king among those competitors in the mobile phone and tablet spaces in which they compete. But if they decided to start using their low-end priced SKU's in mobile phones and tablets to press down on Google and Amazon, and if their margins declined as a result, I, as a shareholder, wouldn't necessarily find that to be a negative. I would love to find the sales mix data on their different SKU's in the iPhone and iPad verticals, though I have yet to see that data shared publicly anywhere. The shape of that curve will tell us a lot about where those markets are in their lifecycle, but Apple has some control over their shape as well.

Some might say that Apple doesn't have the right mindset to play low-margin offense, that it's against their nature. But they've effectively dominated and wrung every last drop of money from the iPod market using pieces of this strategy, and they have the operational expertise and vertical integration to achieve it. In fact, Apple now turns its inventory more times a year than Amazon, by a healthy margin, a staggering fact.

I haven't mentioned Google much, but like Amazon they will continue to attack Apple at the low end with their strategy of subsidizing businesses with their core ad revenue. For the forseeable future, Apple will have these two giants snatching at their feet. It's a high pressure, high stakes game. Wouldn't it be nice to trade some margin for higher castle walls, just for peace of mind? 

Most people don't appreciate them, but low margins have their own particular brand of beauty.