Looking for Signs That Apple’s Runaway Growth Is Waning

Looking for Signs That Apple's Runaway Growth Is Waning

Investors have long relied on Apple to deliver one crucial attribute: growth. Now they are beginning to wonder whether Apple’s days as a growth stock are coming to an end.

With sales increases of Apple’s prime product, the iPhone, projected to decelerate, and no clear new blockbuster device on the horizon, the era of the company’s producing 50 or 60 percent annual revenue growth may be on the wane. When Apple reports earnings Tuesday, investors will be scouring the results for signs of how fast that downshift is happening.

Already, some investors have begun to treat Apple in a new way: as a “value” stock, a label typically attached to companies that generate predictable business results or a reliable dividend, rather than ones that deliver runaway revenue growth. Value stocks often command much lower valuations than growth stocks.

“People were in love with Apple because hits like the iPod and iPhone created phenomenal growth,” said Ernesto Ramos, a fund manager at BMO Global Asset Management, which manages $18 billion and counts Apple as its largest holding. “As investors shifted their minds around the fact that it’s no longer going to deliver the same sort of huge growth over the next five years, the stock became a value play.”

Ramos says his firm still owns Apple in some of its growth funds, but it began including the stock in value funds in mid-2013.

The change has important implications for Apple. While a technology-sector company like Netflix is regarded as a growth stock because its revenue grew 22.8 percent in the most recent quarter from the previous year, value stocks include aging tech giants like Cisco, Oracle and Intel. Being lumped in with those behemoths would be a perception shift for Apple.

Beyond that, switching from being a growth stock to being a value stock can be a long and painful process. Growth investors need to sell a company’s shares and drive down the price until it is low enough to tempt value investors, who buy stocks they think are cheap compared with the intrinsic value of the company. In the tech industry, a shift from growth to value also often signals to investors that a company is facing newer competitors with more innovative products, raising the question of how relevant the company can remain.

“Investors don’t like to see the words tech and value combined because when growth slows at a tech company, it usually means that something essentially is not working,” said Angelo Zino, a senior analyst at the research firm S&P Capital IQ.

A spokeswoman for Apple declined to comment.

Any change would have repercussions beyond Apple because its soaring performance in recent years helped lift the broader market. If Apple shares were removed from the equation, the performance of the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index in five of the last seven years would drop by about 1 percentage point, according to data from S&P Dow Jones Indices. In 2014, for instance, the index rose 13.7 percent with Apple and 12.9 percent without Apple.

The Apple effect is even more pronounced when technology names are isolated. For tech stocks on the S&P 500 as a group, annual gain in 2009 declined by 6 percentage points when Apple shares were not included, dropping to 56 percent from 62 percent.

Apple’s effect became more muted last year as the company’s growth decelerated, according to the data.

Investors have turned to Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Alphabet, which owns Google – collectively referred to as the FANG stocks – for growth. Those companies are each expected to show annual revenue gains of 23 to 40 percent for the last three months of 2015, while Apple is projected to deliver 3 percent revenue growth, according to Bloomberg data.

Ramos says companies like Amazon have bigger growth potential for his fund than Apple, though he plans to continue owning shares in the iPhone maker.

“Amazon will see about 20 percent revenue growth, and earnings per share are expected to jump considerably,” he said. “This is a very strong growth story.”

Apple’s shares have already been buffeted in recent months because of worries about the slowing economy in China, which the company counts as one of its largest markets. Half a dozen companies that provide parts for the iPhone also blamed weak demand from Apple for lower-than-expected earnings, causing worries about the company’s sales trajectory.

In total, Apple shares fell 4.7 percent in 2015. So far this year, they are down 3.7 percent, while the S&P 500 is down 6.7 percent. Alphabet is now within spitting distance of overtaking Apple as the world’s biggest company by market capitalization.

“If you wanted to outperform the market, the FANG stocks did better,” said Jonathan Krinsky, an analyst at the research and trading firm MKM Partners, though he added that Apple remained a must-watch stock because it composed such a large part of many stock indexes.

Investors may still someday reanoint Apple as a growth stock, especially if the company can create a best-selling new product that drives up its sales rate. Wall Street analysts cite Microsoft as an example of a business that lost steam and then made the adjustments necessary to deliver strong revenue growth again.

And Apple may have some product aces up its sleeve. The company entered wearable computing last year with the Apple Watch. Apple is also trying to become a dominant software platform in the auto industry and is working on a car. (An executive who was overseeing the car project, Steve Zadesky, is leaving the company for personal reasons, according to a person with knowledge of the matter, who asked to remain anonymous because the details are private. The Wall Street Journal earlier reported on the departure.)

Apple has been reclassified as a value stock before. FTSE Russell, which makes several closely followed stock indexes, found in 2013 that Apple no longer met its criteria to be treated purely as a growth stock. Some of the company’s enormous market capitalization was reallocated to the Russell Value Index, as well as being in the Russell Growth Index. A year later, when the company’s sales had risen strongly with the introduction of the iPhone 6, FTSE Russell placed Apple solely back in the growth index.

Tom Goodwin, FTSE Russell’s senior research director, said that stock price, sales growth and analyst expectations determine whether a company is placed in the growth or value index, or in both. About a third of the stocks that Russell tracks are included in both indexes, he said.

But until Apple reveals another hit or shows a significant pickup in iPhone sales growth, Apple should be viewed as a value-oriented name, said Zino of S&P Capital IQ.

“Historically Apple was the name to own if you wanted to outperform the market,” he said. “Now there are other places to look.”

[“Source-Gadgets”]

India’s Gadget Rental Companies Want You to Try Before You Buy

India's Gadget Rental Companies Want You to Try Before You Buy

With a number of new types of gadgets available these days, it’s more expensive than ever to own the latest products. These days though, you don’t have to commit Rs. 50,000 on a phone to find out whether you’re going to be happy with it. There are companies that want you to enjoy the latest and greatest products, without burning a hole in your wallet.

“I always had the fascination of trying these gadgets before buying them,” says Vidit Kalra, 26, founder of New Delhi-based smartphone and tablet renting firm Snizzzo, which started in 2012. What began as something for himself and people like him has now become a corporate-centric business.

“When I opened it up for individuals, the problem that I faced was security. I couldn’t cope up with the security issue [because] people weren’t ready to put down a cash deposit,” he says. “And there was no other way for me to get collateral for the products I was renting out.” This worry led Snizzzo to start renting smartphones to corporates instead of individuals.

Corporates rent out the phones for longer periods, so the number of transactions involved is low – Kalra says that he works on Snizzzo part time, because interest in rentals is growing slowly, he says, and e-commerce has been growing much more quickly. For this reason, Kalra says, his focus is on his smartphone accessory company, Qrioh.

Try, or buy?
Mumbai-based Eazy Leazy is a new entrant in the industry that launched only last month. And unlike Snizzzo, Eazy Leazy is all for individual renters. Eazy Leazy co-founder Peshotan Kapadia says the company wants to provide access to products that people might be interested in, but aren’t passionate enough about to spend too much money on the gadgets.

camera_photographer_holiday.jpgFor example, you might want a DSLR or a GoPro, or a karaoke machine, but any of these can run into a month or more of most people’s salaries. “We are not here to replace ownership, that’s not the idea,” says Kapadia. Instead, Eazy Leazy wants to be there for you when you need something for a 2-day or week-long period.

“I was going on a holiday and whenever I go on a holiday, I want a camera. Not because I’m a photography enthusiast or anything but because I’d be spending a lot on the holiday, so I’d like to take great pictures,” says Kapadia, talking about how the company was formed. “After I had to beg, borrow and steal from my friends, I got a camera that was 3-4 years old and I wasn’t happy with it,” he adds. And he believes that there are plenty of other people who have been in the same boat, where you can’t justify buying an expensive gadget you’ll only use for a couple of days, but would be willing to pay to rent it.

For what it’s worth, this reasoning works for some products. Most people aren’t likely to want to do anything with a camera or karaoke system outside of specific events, but products like smartphones and smartwatches are obviously more of a daily thing. Sure, professionals might borrow one for a photo shoot, demonstration or the like but there isn’t a lot of use (or fun) to be had by owning an Apple Watch over the weekend.

But Kapadia is quick to remark that’s the second feature of their business – to provide product categories whose utility people at large aren’t convinced of. “In categories where experience with the product becomes important, it makes sense to offer a try to buy service,” he says.

It does raise the question if providing access to products that most people wouldn’t buy outright can turn into a short-term novelty thing. But Kapadia says he’s seen more of the week-long renting when it comes to smartphones and accessories, and less of the two-day weekend binge. Other products such as the action cameras and karaoke machines that are rented out for a purely one-time use case basis, he adds.

gopro_hero_4_studio.jpgAlthough the model is a little unusual for high-end electronics, it’s one that’s been around for a little longer in the gaming world. Ishwar Awatramani, 36, runs video game rental company Grabbbit, and has been renting out games for two console generations now.

With the PlayStation 3, Awatramani says, games would cost between Rs. 2,000 and Rs. 2,500. But with the arrival of the PlayStation 4, games jumped to Rs. 3,299 and much higher. “That made my business expand as games had become even more expensive than what I had envisioned them to be,” he says.

Grabbbit has built a tight-knit community, he claims, and the regulars contribute back to the game pool. But if you’re looking to have a party with your friends over the weekend and don’t own a console, you’re going to be disappointed. Awatramani doesn’t offer consoles on rent to individuals, and like Kalra he cites issues such as trust and security. In addition to that, he blames people’s likeliness to tinker (“mod” in gamer talk) the systems provided on rent.

As a result, the core of Grabbbit’s business is game software, on a Blu-ray or a DVD. Think of Netflix before it started streaming, but for video games instead of movies. The catch is that the video gaming industry is increasingly moving towards digital delivery, which would make it impossible for people to trade games easily. A game that’s been registered once to someone’s PSN, Steam, or Xbox account cannot be transferred to another user.

Awatramani isn’t concerned in the slightest, though. “I don’t like to stereotype but it is Indian mentality to have a hard copy. And most gamers I have spoken to want a physical copy of the games they love,” he adds.

As for taking the business completely online, he says they are too small at the moment to consider that. He points at the arrival of Netflix, and notes that big players will enter the market sooner or later. “You can say we are still the local friendly video game renting store, yeah,” says Awatramani.

xbox_one_controller.jpgA bit of both
What’s clear from these companies is that there is a lot of interest in technology products, mostly held back by prices. Whether people will really go from experiencing a product, to actually buying it, is a bigger question.

“The whole smartphone business is dependent on how quickly you can procure it and how easily you can sell it later on and what’s the depreciation in between,” says Snizzzo’s Kalra. “If you’re not able to cycle the inventory, you’re dead.”

For games, it’s all about building up a reputable collection, according to Awatramani. While discussing the need to procure the latest game the day of the release, he bemoans the wants of today’s gamers, who just want to play on the PlayStation 4 and have no love for old or retro games.

While that statement may not apply across the board – an iPhone 6S is inherently the logical choice as opposed to an iPhone 3G – all three companies agreed that the catalogue you build to renting electronics is not going to stay relevant for very long. It’s not like a library where each book you add brings value to the collection – here, older items are a burden.

Kalra says the market is its nascent stage, but thinks the mindset of the Indian consumer is changing which will lead to a growth in demand in the next few years. “There is a large group of people – the everyday guy – who don’t have access to these products in their ecosystem,” Eazy Leazy’s Kapadia notes.

[“Source-Gadgets”]

Asus ZenFone Zoom Camera in a More Affordable Package? Don’t Hold Your Breath

Asus ZenFone Zoom Camera in a More Affordable Package? Don't Hold Your Breath

Asus on Friday launched the ZenFone Zoom at an event in Agra, which is the thinnest smartphone in the world with 3X optical zoom. Given what previous smartphones with optical zoom looked like, what Asus has achieved in terms of design looks really impressive. The ZenFone Zoom still looks like a smartphone, instead of resembling a camera that had phone features thrown in as an afterthought.

Gadgets 360 got a chance to speak to a room full of Asus executives, and we started off by asking CEO Jerry Shen how the idea of ZenFone Zoom came about.

“We tried to design a smartphone with very powerful photography experience,” Shen explained. “When we review the history – like Samsung also had a smartphone [with optical zoom], but Samsung’s smartphone was like a camera with smartphone features because their optical zoom is this way [raises hand above the phone’s surface], but our lens is this way [points inside the phone].”

Kamew Yeh, Director of Digital Image Technology Division at Asus, later gave Gadgets 360 a closer look at the lens assembly developed by Hoya, the Japanese company that makes camera modules for digital cameras and smartphones. As Shen mentioned, the zoom lens, which typically moves outwards when you try to zoom into an object, has been fitted inside the smartphone at an angle of 90 degrees, so it’s effectively moving sideways. This means, contrary to what you’d expect, there’s no bulge in the design of the phone. Of course the phone’s curved design that tapers towards the edges helps a bit in masking the fact that its flat centre is thicker than most other smartphones.

asus_zenfone_zoom_ndtv_1.jpgYeh told Gadgets 360 that any other OEM can buy the same lens assembly from Hoya, but insisted that the implementation won’t be easy as replacing the rear camera module of an existing smartphone. Shen had earlier said the company spent two years developing the smartphone, and Yeh explains that this included making changes to the image processing software to compensate for the unconventional lens assembly.

The ZenFone Zoom comes with relatively high-end hardware and a premium finish, which, combined with the unique camera mechanism, results in a price tag of Rs. 37,999 – not exactly affordable. Shen acknowledged not everyone would be queuing up to buy this phone and we asked him if Asus has plans to offer the same package with other hardware and design in, theoretically, a more affordable smartphone.

“We may try to do that in the future but not now,” Shen says. “We spent two years trying to make sure everything is perfect, and then [later] we can start [looking at other models].” Shen says that it’s possible to give optical zoom in a more affordable smartphone, but it won’t be as thin as the ZenFone Zoom. You can of course buy a camera with 3x optical zoom at a fraction of the cost of the ZenFone Zoom, but it’s unlikely to be as thin, and of course it won’t double up as a smartphone.

asus_zenfone_zoom_hoya_lens_ndtv_2.jpg“This camera module altogether, the cost is much more than the CPU and anything [else],” explains Shen, talking about the circular part that sits at the back of the smartphone. Together, the metal unibody that is required to house the camera module, and the optics cost “about 5-10 times of the CPU”, accounting for “40-50 percent” of the total cost of the ZenFone Zoom, according to Shen.

Jen Chuang, Director of Asus Design Centre steps in to say that Asus ZenFones are known for their good cameras, even without optical zoom. “I would like to argue actually most of the ZenFones are really, really good in camera quality, even without the optical zoom – like Selfie, Laser, they are all really unique in camera features, so I will like to say we actually really do have great cameras in all product segments,” Chuang concludes.

Having spent some time with the ZenFone Zoom, it’s clear that the 3x optical zoom definitely helps in capturing more detail by getting you that little bit closer to things. Of course it wasn’t long before we started taking it for granted and found ourselves wishing we had 12x optical zoom, to get really up close. It would be no surprise if somewhere in Taiwan or Tokyo, Asus and Hoya engineers are working to make that very dream a reality.

[“Source-Gadgets”]

Apple’s iPhone Success May Be Reaching Its Peak

Apple's iPhone Success May Be Reaching Its PeakApple could soon face one of its biggest challenges to date: Peak iPhone.

Most analysts believe Apple surpassed its own record by selling more than 74.5 million units of its flagship product in the final three months of 2015. But there are signs that iPhone sales in the first three months of 2016 will – for the first time ever – show an abrupt decline from the same period a year earlier.

That could mark a pivotal moment for the Silicon Valley giant. Apple is the world’s biggest company, in terms of stock value, thanks to the iPhone’s surging popularity around the world. In business terms, Apple makes most of its money from iPhone sales.

But concerns about slowing growth have sent the stock into a months-long slump, fueling debate about what kind of company Apple will be in the future.

The iPhone contributed nearly two-thirds of Apple’s $234 billion (roughly Rs. 15,92,050 crores) in revenue last year. None of the other new products Apple has launched in recent years have emerged as blockbusters. That’s led some critics to suggest Apple has lost its innovative touch, while others say it’s evolving to depend on a broader base of related tech products and services.

One thing is clear, said analyst Angelo Zino at S&P Capital IQ: “Last year was an unprecedented year forApple and the iPhone…. You’ll never see that type of growth from the iPhone again.”

(Also see:  iPhone Sales in India Grew 76 Percent, Says Apple CFO)

When CEO Tim Cook reports Tuesday on Apple’s sales for the last three months of 2015, investors will be watching closely for any hints about how Apple’s signature smartphone is faring in the current quarter. Sales usually fall somewhat after the holiday shopping season. But analysts say it appears Apple has cut production orders from key suppliers in recent weeks, suggesting it’s lowered its own forecasts.

Apple hasn’t commented on iPhone sales since last fall, when Cook struck an upbeat tone. In part, Zino and other experts say, the company is suffering from its own success. Apple sold 61 million iPhones in the March quarter of 2015, or 40 percent more than it did a year earlier. To match that growth rate, Apple would need to sell more than 85 million in the current period. Instead, analysts are expecting around 55 million.

(Also see:  iPhone Sales Decline Signalled by Fewer Orders at Apple Suppliers)

An estimated 500 million people own iPhones now, which means Apple can rely on a significant number to upgrade each year. But some have put off buying a new model because they didn’t see a strong reason to upgrade.

Despite some new features, “people are feeling like there hasn’t been anything that’s really new” in the latest iPhone models, known as the 6s and 6s Plus, which came out last fall, said market researcher John Feland of Argus Insights.

Apple will likely make significant changes in the next major iPhone release, expected in September, which could fuel another surge in sales. Some tech blogs have reported a new model might even be coming this spring.

The company went through a similar cycle a few years ago, when iPhone sales growth slowed to 7 percent in the final months of 2013. The next year, Apple introduced new models with significantly bigger screens. That sent sales skyrocketing, especially in Asia, where consumers had previously flocked to buy big-screen phones from rival Samsung.

But there may no more equally dramatic changes left to jump-start sales like that again. “Apple really pulled the big lever they had left un-pulled, up to then,” said tech analyst Jan Dawson of Jackdaw Research. “That was sort of a one-off event.”

While iPhone sales may be slowing, Apple has launched other products and services tied to the iPhone – from the Apple Watch to the digital payments service known as Apple Pay, the subscription-basedApple Music and “smart home” software that lets users control their lights and appliances with Siri, the voice-enabled digital assistant on the iPhone and iPad. These are designed to make the iPhone itself more useful, while producing a steady stream of new revenue.

None of those new products have sold like the iPhone itself, however. Sales of the iPad have been declining for two years.

“Apple still has a lot of value, a lot of cash flow, so it’s not to say the company is in trouble. But it’s difficult to say that it’s on the cutting edge,” said Murillo Campello, a finance professor at Cornell University who follows Apple closely.

Others say it’s premature to count Apple among former tech giants, like Hewlett-Packard, that have struggled for relevance as their pace of growth and innovation declined.

Apple is working on a wide range of future products, from streaming video to virtual reality and even self-driving cars, said FBR Capital Markets’ analyst Daniel Ives in a recent note to clients.

“Apple’s often surprised us with what they end up doing,” added Dawson.

[“Source-Gadgets”]