Apple: Faded, But Not a Black Hole for Market

The world’s biggest tech name matures.

FE_DA_121023iPadMini.jpg
By SHARE

That puts a lot of weight on one single stock to lead the entire market higher. Apple has always attracted outsized attention. The death of founder Steve Jobs was a signal event for U.S. business, and the succession drama surrounding Tim Cook, the engineer from Alabama with a background in materials management and operations who replaced the great innovator, has been just as riveting.

"The media is great at pointing out the obvious," says Mizek. "They are not good at stepping back and thinking through things. The chance that Jobs left without leaving a clear product roadmap is near zero. He had a 10-year vision for Apple."

In this scenario, Cook, the even-keeled and personable manager, is the person who can execute the plan and inspire the commitment of Apple employees. Less clear is whether anyone, even Jobs, could have forecast the ability of competitors, especially Korea's Samsung, and the persistence of cash-rich and smart competitors like Google and Microsoft, who have been steadily working to increase their share of the mobile world.

[Read: The 10 Most Popular Mutual Funds of 2012.]

Replaying Microsoft's history? Whatever happens, Apple has a massive user base and a mighty global brand name ranked No. 1 by advertising giant WPP. And it has more free cash than most sovereign states. This could have described Microsoft when its own founder, Bill Gates, left his longtime role as top manager. Steve Ballmer, a relentlessly bullish salesman for the company, took over leadership at a time when excess zeal had overtaken the tech world. New to his role, Ballmer told a group of business journalists in San Francisco in September 1999: "There is such an overvaluation of technology stocks that it is absurd."

When asked later for clarification, and what Microsoft should be valued at, Ballmer answered: "Less." The stock was $96 then, and climbed into triple-digits. After the bust, shares landed in the mid-20s, where they've remained, roughly, for most of the past decade.

Microsoft, of course, remains one of the world's most profitable companies. If not regarded as the most creative tech name today, it's widely seen as one of the smartest. Microsoft still generates enormous cash and a healthy dividend for stockholders, and Ballmer remains at its helm.

The mobile shift—first mover disadvantage. Could Apple be on the same track? Apple launched the era of sophisticated smartphones, just as Microsoft did when it created a new era of personal computing. In the interim, Google advanced the art of making money on the seemingly untamable information-wants-to-be-free Internet.

All are competing on the mobile front. Google and Samsung already have the largest market share in smartphones, with the Android operating system overtaking Apple's iOS. Consulting firm Gartner has also forecast a tripling of Microsoft's market share of tablet and smartphone systems, predicting it could even overtake iPhone in the years ahead.

Those figures could be disturbing for any Apple backer, although most analysts see room for the competing systems to thrive in the rapid expansion of mobile computing. Indeed, the multiple platforms could be a spur for technology innovation in general, creating new opportunities for the hundreds of companies developing products and applications for the operating systems.

[In Pictures: The S&P's 10 Worst Trading Days]

"I think the Apple concerns are overblown," said Sam Hamadeh, chief executive of PrivCo, which tracks private companies, many of which are developing mobile applications. He notes that he himself owns Apple stock. "Some are worried it will end up a Mac vs. PC story—where Mac market share dropped below 10 percent and developers stopped developing for the Mac platform, which became an unvirtuous cycle."

For the "foreseeable future, at least the next three years—an eternity in the tech world," Apple will remain the "thought leader" even if its overall share drops a bit, he says. Developers will continue to create products for both systems.