Last week’s shareholder assassination of Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL), the most valuable technology company, which sent its shares plunging 16 percent, enough to lose the crown of most valuable company, raises the question: is it another Walt Disney Co. (NYSE:DIS)?
The two California-based pioneers in creativity share certain roots in that both were invented by people who had what Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen terms “disruptive technology.”
Walt Disney, the Chicago-born cartoonist, created sensations in the 1920s with characters like Oswald the Rabbit and Mickey Mouse that made characters come alive because of the invention of movies. He won his first Oscar in 1932 even before producing color music classics like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Fantasia” and other hits.
After World War II, he embraced TV and produced content he introduced every Sunday with “Walt Disney Presents,” fostering series about heroes like Davy Crockett, "Swamp Fox" Francis Marion and cartoon characters like Mickey, Donald Duck and Goofy, reaching tens of millions of children.
Then Disney built Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., the first theme park, and got into destination tourism. His engineers created a robot of Abraham Lincoln for the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York that greeted visitors to the Illinois Pavilion that talked and moved, perhaps more mechanically than Daniel Day-Lewis in the current film, released by Disney Touchstone Films.
But Walt Disney died in 1966, leaving no obvious successor, and the company foundered for years until the billionaire Bass family recruited Michael Eisner as CEO in 1984, followed by Robert Iger in 2005. It’s now a huge, successful, profitable enterprise but hasn’t been terribly disruptive since Walt died.
That’s where the parallel to Apple comes in. Founded in 1976 by two tyros, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the company created the Apple II and Macintosh in Jobs’s first era, followed by the Macbook, iPod, iPhone and iPad in his second. It also became wildly profitable.
In August 2011, weeks before Jobs died, shares of Apple touched $374, making it the world's most valuable company, ahead of Exxon Mobil for the first time, and repeated the feat five more times in 2011. Then a year ago Friday, Apple shares hit $437.31, exceeding Exxon Mobil again and streaming all the way up to $705.07 on Sept. 21, before falling all the way down to $436.80 on Friday and closing at $439.85.
The plunge came despite reporting a record quarter with revenue of $54.5 billion and net income of $13.08 billion, or $13.81 a share, as well as reporting cash and investments exceeding $137.1 billion. It was spurred by a forecast of slowing growth and income for the current quarter, which CFO Peter Oppenheimer ascribed to a new conservatism in predictions.
Apple’s iPhone family was the “disruptive technology” in smartphones, as was the iPad for tablets. But now, the whole world, headed by Samsung Electronics Corp. (KRX:005930) is gunning for Apple and outselling it. Next week, a recharged Research in Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM) will launch BlackBerry 10, a likely hit in the enterprise sector as well as in emerging markets like Indonesia and India, where iPhones are too expensive.
Apple CEO Timothy D. Cook, 52, was the heir apparent to Steve Jobs, but doesn’t have the founder’s creativity, dynamism and background. He’s a professional manager with the college degrees Jobs lacked but not the pizazz. Key Jobs lieutenants such as design guru Jonathan Ive and Internet software Senior VP Eddy Cue remain, though.
But the question is whether the magic can continue. Unlike big computer companies like International Business Machines Corp. (NYSE:IBM), the No. 2 computer company, Apple doesn’t have a services stream to throw off sustained revenue and create an order backlog.
Apple’s services now are mainly entertainment, for iTunes software and services. In the first quarter, that amounted to $3.68 billion, or only 6.7 percent of total revenue, compared with $3.5 billion, or 8.3 percent of total revenue a year ago.
That means Apple now is dependent upon continued sales of hot products which face more competition. As well, some of the “brand extensions” like the iPad Mini are priced less and sell for lower gross margins. So in effect, Apple is cannibalizing the current product line, which will send profits lower.
So as a product company, Apple risks becoming like Sony Corp. (NYSE:SNE), the Japanese pioneer that could have invented all the Apple products but didn’t after founder Akio Morita died. But Apple is spending minimally on research and development, only about $1 billion last quarter. Will that be enough to generate the hit of 2016?
To be sure, there are some links between Apple and Disney, stemming from the latter’s purchase of Pixar for $7.4 billion in 2006, leaving Jobs as the company’s single largest shareholder. He was a Disney director. His 7.7 percent stake is now in the trust managed by Laurene P. Jobs, his widow.
But while Disney’s Iger is an Apple director, serving along with former Vice President Albert Gore, there’s no creative genius on the Apple board. Nor is there insurance of disruptive new products.
Walt Disney used to revel about his “magic kingdom” much as Jobs said he wanted to make Apple products “insanely great.” The question for the next two years is whether Apple can avoid the fate of Disney and not go astray before settling into being a very good developer of attractive products and services.
Disney hasn't been doing badly lately. For the past year, shareholders have had a return of nearly 41 percent on their shares, including dividends. For Apple? Minus 1 percent..
David Zielenziger is a veteran editor and journalist who has written for newspapers including the Baltimore Sun, Asian Wall Street Journal and EETimes, as well as for...