Apple extends product cycle with iPad Air 3, iPhone 5se: Think razors, razor blades

It may be time to think of Apple's incremental product updates as vessels to sell you more digital services.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Apple will reportedly roll out new Apple Watch models, an iPad Air 3 as well as a 4-inch iPhone called the iPhone 5se.

Mark Gurman at 9to5Mac has the details, but these products would apparently roll out at an event in March. Product cycle aside, the launches address a few key issues:

  • Apple needs to juice the iPad upgrade cycle and the iPad Pro has a longer enterprise-focused sales cadence.
  • The company also needs to pump out Apple Watch updates and modifications at a faster pace--at least for the intermediate term before the category matures.
  • And the iPhone 5se addresses a real need. Smartphones have gone big and those screens are handy most of the time. But they're also bulky in many situations. Depending on price, perhaps Apple convinces customers they need two iPhones.

While we can debate the merits of Apple's hardware prospects and whether the company has lost its mojo, there's a business model element a lot of people are missing. Apple is going to be about razors and razor blades. You know the drill: Buy a razor blade for little and spend way too much on the razor blades. It's the Amazon model. The Kindle cost you nothing, but the digital content and subscriptions add up. Apple will resemble Gillette and Amazon more than it will the hardware company we know now.

Previously: Apple expected to reveal iPad Air 3 in mid-March | Apple's iPad Pro didn't move Q1 sales needle: Enterprises will take time | iPhone sales stall while the iPad goes into a nosedive | Apple hit with Q1 mixed bag as iPhone sales slow

Apple CEO Tim Cook tried to get folks thinking about the razor blade model as the company forecasted a revenue decline in the quarter ahead. Analysts, already freaked because Apple shares have taken a hit in recent months, are busy writing reports about how there's no momentum. They're practically begging for an Apple Car so they have something to talk about.

Cook said on Apple's earnings call on Tuesday:

A growing portion of our revenue is directly driven by our existing install base. Because our customers are very satisfied and engaged, they spend a lot of time on their devices and purchase apps, content and other services. They also are very likely to buy other Apple products or replace the one that they own. And because of the enduring value of the device, their replacing is likely higher to be given or sold to someone who will also love and use it often.

So as a result, our installed base has been growing very fast and has recently reached a major milestone, crossing 1 billion active devices for the first time. This is an unbelievable asset for us. Because our installed base has grown quickly, we have also seen an acceleration in the growth of our services business, another large and important source of recurring revenues. Now that we have reached this milestone of 1 billion active devices, we thought this would be a great opportunity to share more information on what has become one of the largest service businesses in the world.

A cynic would note that talk about recurring revenue deflects from slowing iPhone sales and be partially correct. But that take may miss the point.

Luca Maestri, CFO of Apple, said:

To fully comprehend the scale of the services that we are delivering to our installed base and how fast this business is growing, we look at purchases in addition to revenue. When we aggregate the purchase value of services tied to our installed base during FY15, it adds up to more than $31 billion. That's an increase of 23% over FY14. In the recent December quarter, purchases of installed base services reached $8.9 billion, which is a growth rate of 24% year-over-year.

The size and growth of these services tied to our installed base compare favorably to other services companies you're familiar with. Our installed base services are also quite profitable, with gross margins that, on a purchase value basis, are similar to our company average.

Also, we're very excited by the scale and growth of our active installed base. We define an active device as one that has been engaged with our services within the past 90 days. Our active installed base has recently past 1 billion devices, with year-over-year growth of more than 25%.


Now what? Apple is in a transition period and it's going to take time to think services over hardware and product categories. Cowen analyst Timothy Arcuri said:

The installed base creates huge service opportunities longer-term, but investors don't pay any multiple for these businesses (e.g. HPQ, XRX, Seiko Epson).

Arcuri's hardware installed base argument may not hold up. Apple may be more like Amazon or a cloud company in the future. There's a chance that Apple services could even be detached from the hardware (although hell may freeze over first). The big question is whether Apple's services business can become such a juggernaut that incremental hardware upgrades fly.

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