The Biggest Risk to Apple's Consumer Products Empire

By Ross Heart  DEC 07, 2012 10:10 AM

Apple is the greatest and most successful consumer company ever witnessed, but it's not immune to the same factors that have brought many a technology company to its knees.

 


A few weeks back I mentioned to Andy Nyquist that I was working on a post detailing the No. 1 risk to Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL). Well, a quick slide in shares from $700 to $505 brought a rash of hurried “Demise of Apple” articles, and piling on with the consensus isn’t my style. Now that we’ve seen a strong rebound off the lows, I’ll revisit it as I think the company is at, or nearing, a crossroads, meriting explanation.

Quick disclosures: This post is entirely about Apple the corporation. It will not attempt to correlate consumer trends to Apple’s current stock price or timing its market horizon.

And, to be sure, I should note that I have recently been short shares of Apple in addition to having held multiple long positions; so I have traded both sides. At the time of this writing, however, I do not hold a position in Apple. Regardless, I do have the utmost respect and admiration for the innovation, creativity, and brilliance of Steve Jobs and what he and the current team have meant for all of us.
 
So, Just What Is Apple’s Biggest Risk?
 
Generational pushback. This is obviously long-term, but given how rapid technology’s pace runs, perhaps it isn’t. Sure Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) are risks, a less robust upgrade cycle and cannibalizing its own products are concerns, and attacks on profit margins may exist, but long-term what matters most are the outsized trends like the one that drove Apple to its current perch.
 
So, what do I mean by 'generational pushback'? Both mom and dad use an iPhone, mom uses her MacBook Air to work at home, dad jams to classic rock on his iPod while mowing the lawn, all the while the kids play on their iPads after coming home from a school that uses Apple products. First of all, that is one heck of a business! The pushback occurs as kids age, products age, and all of a sudden, one day mom’s MacBook Air starts to look a lot like grandma’s Oldsmobile to a restless 15-year-old who isn’t sure following mom and dad’s technology footprint is so cool anymore.
 
This doesn’t take place immediately as the shine of revolutionary products, productivity advantages, and outstanding design will persist for quite some time. If I were a long-term shareholder though, obsessing over quarterly metrics, anticipating new product launches, and wondering how much thinner the product can get wouldn’t concern me nearly as much as the day kids eventually start to say no to the $500 billion behemoth. Kids are a fickle bunch, and at some point when trends start to wane and when successful substitutes emerge, a trend in technology can accelerate as quickly in reverse. I believe staving off those encroaching competitors is exactly the reason Apple has grown so aggressive recently in protecting its intellectual property and design advantages.
 
Why focus on kids/youth? Because they will always (almost always) dictate the trend and adoption of transformations in technology, music, and the like. Apple exploited this truth as it strategically set its sights on younger demographics and the college-aged crowd initially. They then parlayed a successful adoption of product with incredibly easy-to-use technology into a proxy for older generations to become hip once again, to tap into their youth. Imagine listening to Dylan back in the '60s as a rebellious teenager, and dad discovers Dylan’s music and bursts into your room with his own copy of the latest vinyl. Then you visit your grandfather at Thanksgiving and he’s spinning his own record on his console stereo system (which doubles nicely as furniture, mind you). Need I say more? I believe wholeheartedly that Apple’s successful penetration of these markets is exactly why it currently teeters at this precipice.
 
Why is this generational pushback my biggest concern? Because Apple needs new product innovation to retain its leadership, and if the youngest generations do not embrace new ventures going forward, they will not gain traction, and the company cannot continue its growth regardless of the current obsessions by more mature customers. Apple is the greatest and most successful consumer company we’ve ever witnessed, but it is not immune to the same factors that have brought many a technology company to its knees (ironically, a list that once included Apple).
 
I believe this tapping into youth and hipsterness is exactly the reason many Apple supporters are so feverishly defensive of Apple criticisms as the company connects its older users with a youthful spirit like no company ever has. It is the cherry-red sports car baby boomers can hold in their hands, text their kids with when they’re away at college, and reminisce to the Beatles with. To question the dominance of that car is a direct strike at its fountain of youth whereas 14-year-olds won’t bat an eye when Apple’s reign is over. They’ll already have the next great thing down on their Christmas list.
 
Ironically, if kids roll over and don’t push back, we may not get that next great thing, and it would be a terrible indicator for the future of the United States. We need innovation, we need pushback, we need competition, and we especially need outcast kids tinkering in garages and basements with dreams of taking on the king of the mountain. I cringe if we get to a point where we obsess over the established Apple, Zuck, and Sergey, but scoff at those outcast kids as silly dreamers. We desperately need those kids more than ever. As that famous push-backer once sang: the times they are a-changin’.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on the investing and economics site, See It Market.
No positions in stocks mentioned.

Heart Capital does not offer investment advice via this medium. Under no circumstance whatsoever do these postings, opinions, charts, or any other information represent a recommendation or personalized investment, tax, or financial planning advice.