On the surface, Apples personal computer business is not that much different from Dells or HPs: It uses the same highly commoditized hardware and it also outsources manufacturing, but Apple spends much more on the R&D of its own operating system and creates distinctive, innovative products. Apple gets to keep a slice of revenue that would otherwise go to Microsoft for the operating system. Also, Apple is able to charge a premium (usually a few hundred dollars per PC) for the aesthetic appeal and perceived ease of use of its products.
However, when it comes to the i devices, Apple is a much smarter hardware company; its value added goes further than just basic design and software. Though there is a lot of commoditized hardware that goes into an iPhone or iPad, Apples skill at fitting an ever-growing number of components into ever-shrinking devices constantly increases. Add world-class touch and feel, superior battery life and durability, and you have a package that turns what would otherwise be commodity items into highly differentiated, and undeniably sexy, products. Apple has even gone a step further and is designing its own microprocessors.
But and this is a very important but as phones and tablets mature, processor speed, battery life and weight will tend to become uniform across all devices. It is arguable that the competition has already caught up with Apple in the hardware race. As the hardware premium goes away, there will be only two premiums left: Apples brand and its ecosystem. (I will go into detail about the i ecosystem and what it means for Apples margins and profitability in my second column, later this week.)
Note that I did not mention the software premium. Unlike Microsoft, which charges for the Windows operating system installed on PCs, Google gives away Android to anyone who dares to make a phone or a tablet. Unless Apple can maintain the operating system lead against Android, that premium will go away. Recently, I spent a few days playing with Nexus 7, Googles Android-powered 7-inch tablet, which retails for $200 ($130 cheaper than Apples iPad mini). Nexus 7 is a good product, but I kept remembering that humans and monkeys share 98 percent of their DNA, and the Android operating system is missing the 2 percent that makes Apple iOS so special.
Next: Ill explore the competitive advantage of the Apple ecosystem, insult some of its competitors and analyze what the companys shares could be worth under different scenarios.
Vitaliy Katsenelson (email@example.com) is CIO at Investment Management Associates in Denver and author of The Little Book of Sideways Markets.