The Good, Bad And Ugly Apple, Google And Dell

21 Mar, 2012

The Good – Apple

Apple's latest news to start paying a big dividend, and buying back shares, is a boon for investors.  And it signals the company's future strength.  Often dividends and share buybacks indicate a company has run out of growth projects, so it desires to manipulate the stock price as it slowly pays out the company's assets.  But, in Apple's (rare) case the company is making so much profit from existing businesses that they are running out of places to invest it – thus returning to shareholders!

With a $100B cash hoard, Apple anticipates generating at least another $150B of free cash flow, over and above needs for ongoing operations and future growth projects, the next 3 years.  With so much cash flowing the company is going to return money to investors so they can invest in other growth projects beyond those Apple is developing.  Exactly what investors want!

I've called Apple the lowest risk, highest return stock for investors (the stock to own if you can only own one stock) for several years.  And Apple has not disappointed.  At $600/share the stock is up some 75% over the last year (from about $350,) and up 600% over the last 5 years (from about $100.)  And now the company is going to return investors $10.60/year, currently 1.8% – or about 4 times your money market yield, or about 75% of what you'd get for a 10 year Treasury bond. Yet investors still have a tremendous growth in capital opportunity, because Apple is still priced at only 14x this year's projected earnings, and 12 times next year's projected earnings!

Apple keeps winning.  It's leadership in smart phones continues, as the market converts from traditional cell phones to smart phones.  And its lead in tablets remains secure as it sells 3 million units of the iPad 3 over the weekend.  In every area, for several years, Apple has outperformed expectations as it leads the market shift away from traditional PCs and servers to mobile devices and using the "cloud."

The Bad – Google

Google was once THE company to emulate.  At the end of 2008 its stock peaked at nearly $750/share, as everyone thought Google would accomplish nothing short of world domination (OK, a bit extreme) via its clear leadership in search and the way it dominated internet usage.  But that is no longer the case, as Google is being eclipsed by upstarts such as Facebook and Groupon.

What happened?  Even though it had a vaunted policy of allowing employees to spend 20% of their time on anything they desired, Google never capitalized on the great innovations created.  Products like Google Wave and Google Powermeter were created, launched – and then subsequently left without sponsors, management attention, resources or even much interest.  Just as recently happened with GoogleTV.

They floundered, despite identifying very good solutions for pretty impressive market needs, largely because management chose to spend almost all its attention, and resources, defending and extending its on-line ad sales created around search.

  • YouTube is a big user environment, and one of the most popular sites on the web.  But Google still hasn't really figured out how to generate revenue, or profit, from the site.  Despite all the user activity it produces a meager $1.6B annual revenue – and nearly no profit.
  • Android may have share rivaling Apple in smartphones, but it is nowhere in tablets and thus lags significantly in the ovarall market with share only about half iOS.  Worse, Android smartphones are not nearly as profitable as iPhones, and now Google has made an enormous, multi-billion investment in Motorola to enter this business – and compete with its existing smartphone manufacturers (customers.)  To date Android has been a product designed to defend Google's historical search business as people go mobile – and it has produced practically no revenue, or profit.
  • Chrome browsers came on the scene and quickly grew share beyond Firefox.  But, again, Google has not really developed the product to reach a dominant position.  While it has good reviews, there has been no major effort to make it a profitable product.  Possibly Google fears fighting IE will create a "money pit" like Bing has become for Microsoft in search?
  • Chromebooks were a flop as Google failed to invest in robust solutions allowing users to link printers, MP3 players, etc. – or utilize a wide suite of thin cloud-based apps.  Great idea, that works well, they are a potential alternative to PCs, and some tablet applications, but Google has not invested to make the product commercially viable.
  • Google tried to buy GroupOn to enter the "local" ad marketplace, but backed out as the price accelerated.  While investors may be happy Google didn't overpay, the company missed a significant opportunity as it then faltered on creating a desirable competitive product.  Now Google is losing the race to capture local market ads that once went to newspapers.

While Google chose to innovate, but not invest in market development, it missed several market opportunities.  And in the meantime Google allowed Facebook to sneak up and overtake its "domination" position.

Facebook has led people to switch from using the internet as a giant library, navigated by search, to a social medium where referrals, discussions and links are driving more behavior.  The result has advertisers shifting their money toward where "eyeballs" are spending most of their time, and placing a big threat on Google's ability to maintain its historical growth.

Thus Google is now dumping billions into Google+, which is a very risky proposition.  Late to market, and with no clear advantage, it is extremely unclear if Google+ has any hope of catching Facebook.  Or even creating a platform with enough use to bring in a solid, and growing, advertiser base.

The result is that today, despite the innovation, the well-known (and often good) products, and even all the users to its sites Google has the most concentrated revenue base among large technology companies.  95% of its revenues still come from ad dollars – mostly search.  And with that base under attack on all fronts, it's little wonder analysts and investors have become skeptical.  Google WAS a great company – but it's decisions since 2008 to lock-in on defending and extending its "core" search business has made the company extremely vulnerable to market shifts. A bad thing in fast moving tech markets.

Google investors haven't fared well either.  The company has never paid a dividend, and with its big investments (past and future planned) in search and handsets it won't for many years (if ever.)  At $635/share the stock is still down over 15% from its 2008 high.  Albeit the stock is up about 8.5% the last 12 months, it has been extremely volatile, and long term investors that bought 5 years ago, before the high, have made only about 7%/year (compounded.)

Google looks very much like a company that has fallen victim to its old success formula, and is far too late adjusting to market shifts.  Worse, its investments appear to be a company spending huge sums to defend its historical business, taking on massive gladiator battles against Apple and Facebook – two companies far ahead in their markets and with enormous leads and war chests.

The Ugly – Dell

Go back to the 1990s and Dell looked like the company that could do no wrong.  It went head-to-head with competitors to be the leader in selling, assembling and delivering WinTel (Windows + Intel) PCs.  Michael Dell was a modern day hero to other leaders hoping to match the company's ability to focus on core markets, minimize investments in anything else, and be a world-class supply chain manager.  Dell had no technology or market innovation, but it was the best at beating down cost – and lowering prices for customers.  Dell clearly won the race to the bottom.

But the market for PCs matured.  And Dell has found itself one of the last bachelors at the dance, with few prospects.  Dell has no products in leading growth markets, like smartphones or tablets.  Nor even other mobile products like music or video.  And it has no software products, or technology innovation. Today, Dell is locked in gladiator battles with companies that can match its cost, and price, and make similarly slim (to nonexistent) margins in the generic business called PCs (like HP and Lenovo.)

Dell has announced it intends to challenge Apple with a tablet launch later in 2012.  This is dependent upon Microsoft having Windows 8 ready to go by October, in time for the holidays.  And dependent upon the hope that a swarm of developers will emerge to build the app base for things that already exist on the iPad and Android tablets.  The advantage of this product is as yet undefined, so the market is yet undefined.  The HOPE is that somehow, for some reason, there is a waiting world of people that have delayed purchase waiting on a Windows device – and will find the new Dell product superior to a $299 Apple 2 already available and with that 500,000 app store.

Clearly, Dell has waited way, way too long to deal with changing its business.  As its PC business flattens (and soon shrinks) Dell still has no smartphone products, and is remarkably late to the tablet business.  And it offers no clear advantage over whatever other products come from Windows 8 licensees.  Dell is in a brutal world of ever lower prices, shrinking markets and devastating competition from far better innovators creating much higher, and growing, profits (Apple and Amazon.)

For investors, the ride from a fast moving boat in the rapids into the swamp of no growth – and soon the whirlpool of decline – has been dismal.  Dell has never paid a dividend, has no free cash flow to start paying one now, and clearly no market growth from which to pay one in the future.  Dell's shares, at $17, are about the same as a year ago, and down about 20% over the last 5 years.

Leaders in all businesses have a lot to learn from looking at the Good, Bad and Ugly.  The company that has invested in innovation, and then invested in taking that innovation to market in order to meet emerging needs has done extremely well.  By focusing on needs, rather than business optimization, Apple has been able to shift with markets – and even enhance the market shift to position itself for rapid, profitable growth.

Meanwhile, companies that have focused on their core markets and products are doing nowhere near as well.  They have missed market shifts, and watched their fortunes decline precipitously.  They were once very profitable, but despite intense focus on defending their historical strengths profits have struggled to grow as customers moved to alternative solutions.  By spending insufficient time looking outward, at markets and shifts, and too much time inward, on defending and extending past successes, they now face future jeapardy.