If any other major tech company had the kind of year Apple did in 2016, it’s a fair bet that they would have been crucified by investors and pummeled by critics.
For each quarter so far in 2016, Apple posted year-over-year revenue declines, the first time in more than a decade. The first nine months of 2016, Apple reported $139.77 billion in revenue, down 12.5 percent from $159.11 billion for the same period a year ago. Profits also were down throughout the year.
Unit sales of its major products, the iPhone, iPad and Mac, were down or soft. The main bright spot was the “services category,” which continued to climb thanks to traction in its Apple Music and App Store sales.
Apple Watch sales seemed to be just OK as users awaited the new version introduced in September. And the introduction of new MacBook Pros this fall have left fans divided about whether they were worth the price, and whether the company even remains committed to the product category.
Oh, and let’s not forget that Apple could be on the hook for a $14.5 billion dollar tax penalty thanks to a European Union ruling that its Irish tax scheme was illegal. Or that the company apparently massively scaled back its automotive-related plans. Or that the incoming president of the United States criticized the company for manufacturing its products overseas.
Naturally, the stock is up about 10 percent so far this year.
That surprisingly strong stock gain is the result of the underlying faith in Apple’s management and culture, as well as the reservoir of goodwill the company has developed among fans over the past decade as it seemed to routinely dazzle with new products or splashy upgrades.
The question now is how patient are those investors and fans willing to be? And how much will Apple’s dedication to its long-term vision be tested?
Certainly Apple is making some big bets on something. In fiscal year 2016 (the four quarters ending Sept. 30), R&D spending grew to $10 billion, up from $8.1 billion last year and $6 billion in 2014. It has significantly closed the gap with Microsoft’s R&D spending, though the Redmond giant still outspent Apple with $12 billion in its most recent fiscal year.
There is talk about a focus on artificial intelligence, maybe some AR/VR, some continued chatter about what its automobile intentions are. No doubt there are ongoing efforts to upgrade the Apple Watch. And there are rumors that it has something big up its sleeve regarding a new iPhone for the gadget’s 10th anniversary.
Still, the best that probably can be said right now is that it’s quite likely that 2017 won’t be nearly as bad as 2016. Apple faced some tough comparisons going into this past year because 2015 was so strong, thanks to the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. It would be surprising if Apple isn’t able to at least match this year’s revenues and even exceed them a bit in 2017.
IDC is forecasting better global smartphone growth in 2017 after sales were mostly flat in 2016. Apple will have to fight for its share of that as it continues to face tough competition in China. The company is also making investments in India, another fast-growing smartphone market where it hopes to regain some of its iPhone momentum.
It can also expect continued growth in services. While sales growth may be slowing, the universe of iOS devices continues to expand. Apple has made leveraging this growing customer base a key focus, and the Apple Music subscription service is giving Spotify a battle. Apple’s ability to continue to get more of its existing customers to use more services (iCloud, Apple Pay, App Store downloads) could determine whether 2017 is just another holding pattern or whether it can post decent growth.
But there simply doesn’t appear to be anything on the short-term horizon that is going to fundamentally alter Apple’s product lineup, even if they roll out something in a new category in 2017, which seems unlikely. Instead, the company is entering an age of incrementalism as it tries to continue upgrading its current arsenal of products and services.
Which, because this is Apple, should be just fine for many years. The company continues to print cash. It has enough money to continue buying back stock and and paying big dividends to investors. Apple is not going anywhere.
Yet a golden age of blockbuster growth is clearly over. And now we’re about to find out what comes next.