Apple’s services and advertising push are long-term hedges.
Apple is at the top of the world, and it’s difficult to imagine the company being anything other than the market leader and tastemaker that it has been in recent memory. I’m not about to predict its demise, but those who (like me) remember the dark days of the 1990s know that success is never guaranteed.
In any case, a company as massive and dominant as Apple is unlikely to simply vanish into the ether-poof. However, as the company has grown and matured, it is undeniable that its nature has shifted.
These modifications are not unprecedented. There has been a pattern among dominant technology companies over the last several decades. Whereas they may have once ruled the world by producing the thing that everyone needed—whether it was a hardware product or a critical piece of software—they appear to eventually evolve into a new form, one that is focused less on delivering a key product and more on what service they provide.
Taking care of business
At the risk of reliving ancient history, IBM was once the undisputed leader in the computing market. Given the company’s current state, it may be difficult to imagine, but it employed an army of salespeople in suits and ties to sell the concept of computers to the world’s largest corporations.
From its inception, Apple saw itself as the antithesis of IBM, free of tradition and corporate ideology, and instead as pirates and rebels, perhaps best summed up by the famous photograph of co-founder Steve Jobs bestowing a colorful gesture in front of one of the monolithic company’s buildings.
At the time Apple began, IBM was the dominant force in the computing market, the one to beat. Simply put, it was all over the place. Nonetheless, it was defeated, at least in that arena. However, because the company had spent several decades evolving, acquiring different companies, and building out a variety of businesses, its loss in the computing market did not result in an existential crisis for the company; instead, it pivoted to focus on enterprise services and has remained successful to this day, even if it is no longer a household name.
This brings us to Microsoft, another company that was once the dominant force in computing. Microsoft was, of course, enormously successful in the 1990s, when the Office productivity suite and the Windows operating system were at their peak. And, like IBM, it was Apple’s most formidable adversary at the time, as the Mac and Windows were locked in a never-ending battle for the personal computer market.
However, the company missed out on the mobile computing revolution and, like IBM before it, has had to change its strategy to focus more on services. Microsoft is now everyone’s best friend. In recent weeks, the company has announced partnerships with Amazon (to allow Word docs to be sent to the new Kindle Scribe), Meta (bringing Teams and Microsoft 365 to the Quest VR devices), and even Apple (bringing Apple Music to Xbox and iCloud Photos support to Microsoft devices).
It’s an intriguing evolution for a company that still controls key aspects of our daily technology experience, from consumer apps like Word and Excel to underlying technologies like Azure. But Microsoft has seen the writing on the wall that says you can’t always be the biggest fish, and that sometimes it’s better to become an indispensable part of the landscape.
Success as a service provider
How does all of this relate to Apple? There have been a few reports recently about Apple beginning to expand its advertising business, with the possibility of ads on Apple TV+ as well as elsewhere in Apple’s ecosystem. This comes several years after it abandoned its first attempt at creating an advertising system, iAd, which failed spectacularly.
Though this decision may appear to be out of character for Apple, the reasoning is simple: the company saw what happened to some of its biggest competitors. Just because you’re at the top now doesn’t mean you’ll always be at the top; it’s better to control your evolution than have it forced upon you.
That is why, over the last decade, the company has made such a significant shift into services. Yes, the iPhone still accounts for roughly half of the company’s revenue (as of the most recent quarterly report), but Services are approaching 25%, and it may soon be larger than the remaining three categories (Mac, iPad, and Wearables) combined.
Even if Apple hasn’t fully embraced Microsoft’s “everyone’s best friend” strategy, it’s clear that it has made moves in that direction: Apple Music and Apple TV+ are now available on a variety of platforms, including those developed by some of the company’s main competitors. Third-party speakers and televisions can now use AirPlay. It has even worked with major competitors on standards such as the Matter smart home tech framework.
All of this is about Apple hedging against a future in which the iPhone is no longer the hugely influential product that it is now—a certainty over a long enough timeframe, even if it’s impossible to predict when—or if Apple’s next big thing, whatever it is, doesn’t last. There may come a time when Apple finds itself sitting in the old tech home, reminiscing about the good old days with Microsoft and IBM, but the company is determined to keep that as far in the future as possible.