Apple is clearly trending downward, cutting back on supplies as I write this, and its valuation is dropping sharply week after week. At CES this year, the typical shadow Apple casts over the show wasn’t in evidence, and Steve Wozniak, one of the living Apple founders, has been lamenting that even Microsoft is out-innovating the company. While there is no doubt there will be hills and valleys to this decline of a tech giant, it has and will occur in three noticeable steps if it repeats its prior fall, which now appears likely.
Act I: The Departure/Death of the King
This event has clearly passed but, as with the last time Jobs left the company, Apple appears increasingly rudderless and unable to make critical decisions or take important risks. Jobs, during his last term in the company, integrated himself even more deeply. In the 1980s, he drove marketing and the Mac; over the last decade, he drove everything and seemed to be a critical part of every major decision, from how a product was conceived, to the final design, to how it was marketed and sold.
He surrounded himself with experts in areas he didn’t know (like retail) and in skills he didn’t have or want to develop (like logistics). The result was a cohesive team with Jobs as the central hub holding it together. When Jobs left, Apple lost this hub, and over the following months, person by person, the key parts of the engine he was central to departed, were fired, or were left in their jobs without the guidance from Jobs they depended on. Yes, many of the early decisions had been made by Jobs before his departure, but most are done now; some, like the iPad Mini, were overturned; and the Apple of today is sharply weakened.
Act II: The Death of a Brand
Today, Apple releases new products to Walmart to be sold at sharp discount, or to be given away—with a phone contract—for free. Jobs designed Apple to be a premium brand like Porsche; the automaker was one of the design examples he used. As with all premium brands, the perception of the brand is paramount and never compromised with a value product. If the firm wants to do a value product, as Porsche did with the Mini, it does so under a brand that is not connected to the premium parent.
Apple instead is increasingly bringing out value products under the Apple brand. The result is that people are slowly shifting away from seeing Apple as providing premium products, which will eventually force it to become ever more aggressive in pricing the products it does have, thereby collapsing its margins. Instead of standing alone, Apple will become more equivalent to Dell, Lenovo, Acer, Asus and HP, removing any chance it will have to do more than look back at the huge margins it has today with longing.
Act III: The Desperation Death Spiral
As the company drops in value, the stock and stock options that form the basis for much of the compensation for board members and top executives fall, often into the red, eliminating much of the personal income and wealth of these powerful people. This tends to make them increasingly desperate, with the result being from-the-hip decisions regarding new products or services that will increasingly find a hostile market because they weren’t well thought-out.
Desperation leads to mistakes, one of them being the rapid cycling of top executives, either because they leave voluntarily for firms with better prospects, or because they become the scapegoat for the current month’s critical problems. This typically includes the CEO, who may find his or her time in the firm cut short. Thus begins a parade of CEOs, each a little worse than the previous, as the pool of smart, talented, experienced CEOs begins to look at Apple less as an opportunity for fame and fortune and more as a place that ends CEO careers.
The last time Apple got into this phase, Steve Jobs came back personally and saved it. There is no Steve Jobs to come back this time.
Epilogue: Saving Apple
This trend can be stopped at any time by restoring skill and balance to the company, not by replacing individual members, but by redesigning the executive team so that it can function at old Apple levels without Jobs. However, while I’ve seen a lot of companies—including the old Apple—drop into this pattern, I’ve never seen any pull out of it. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, only that it is very unlikely.
I think we are beginning to see the end of Apple, a catastrophe that won’t be avoided unless Apple’s board addresses it promptly by retooling the executive team and the company around it. While this could be done in time, history suggests it won’t, and that will mean a sad ending for this once-great company.
Rob Enderle is a principal analyst at the Enderle Group.