Even Apple’s gravity-defying 13-year run of growth had to end

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Has gravity finally caught up with Apple and its stratospheric share price? Last week Apple’s second quarter earnings saw US$47bn shaved off its market value after it announced the first drop in growth since its remarkable run began in 2003.

There has been an outflowing of Schadenfreunde from the tech industry and its commentators that Apple’s remarkable 13-year growth surge has finally ended.

Apple has shown increasingly large growth each quarter since 2003.

But in the last quarter its revenue fell 13% year-on-year to $50.6bn; while iPhone sales fell 16% to 51.2m. iPad were down 19% to 10.2m and Macs dropped 11% to 4.03m. Apple lost 8% immediately in after-hour trade that day.

The iPhone sales are the most problematic, as it accounts for two thirds of Apple’s revenue. This market-defining device not only spawned the smartphone era (albeit early precursors from Nokia, Sony Ericsson and BlackBerry paved the way) but now is the biggest part of Apple’s business and reportedly account for half of smartphone sales in the United States.

“There’s no question that Apple’s best days are behind it,” Bernstein analyst Toni Sacconaghi told the New York Times. “The company grew at astronomical rates, and it’s now so big that its ability to grow at those rates doesn’t exist anymore.”

Apple’s CEO Tim Cook seemed sanguine – or delusional, depending on how you view it. “This too shall pass. The future of Apple is very bright,” he said, calling this reverse a “pause” and highlighting the “macroeconomic environment” that saw its fortunes in economically depressed China, its second largest market, tumble.

Is it the death of Apple? No, it’s the maturation of a pioneering, innovative company in technology categories (all-in-one desktops, smartphones and tablets) that have themselves plateaued – against the backdrop of its two main markets (US and China) having matured and the world still not shrugging off the Great Recession.

There is certainly a lot of truth to how flat the market is. Samsung, the largest maker of smartphones, had seven consecutive quarters of losses (to July 2015) but saw an upturn in its third quarter operating revenue last year. Cook is right to mention the surge the larger iPhone 6 and 6S gave to its sales – as these bigger-screened models caught up with those offered by Android makers. It was an unusual leap that has now flattened out.

But it’s clear that Apple is no longer the company it once was. When Walt Mossberg, the original technology journalist and now executive editor at tech news site The Verge, says your apps aren’t working, it’s a significant sign.

Praising the iPhone as the best smartphone on the market, he wrote in February: “In the last couple of years, however, I’ve noticed a gradual degradation in the quality and reliability of Apple’s core apps, on both the mobile iOS operating system and its Mac OS X platform. It’s almost as if the tech giant has taken its eye off the ball when it comes to these core software products, while it pursues big new dreams, like smartwatches and cars.”

Hard words, but true that “complexity, feature gaps, and bugs have crept in”.

I’ve had random freezes on my iPhone, a persistent problem with the camera where it freezes sometimes when I open it to take a picture, and other minor, but previously unheard-of problems.

I also think the iPhone, and the ultra-thin, ultra-light MacBook are the best devices on the market. I still choose both Apple’s iOS mobile and desktop OS X operating systems, which are frankly still superior. But these once flawless ecosystems are increasingly showing signs that they’re not as robust – and error-free – as they once were.

Even Apple’s gravity-defying 13-year run of good fortune had to end.

This article first appeared to Financial Mail.

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About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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