TV-PGOctober 27, 2004: Apple's stock price climbs above 50, as analysts factor the new iPods into the holiday equation. Meanwhile, the iPod has all but eclipsed the Mac in Apple's marketing and image (but we're okay with that), and John Dvorak builds a whole pointless rant around the false premise that the U2 iPod ships with music...
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North Of 50 And Climbing (10/27/04)

Technically it wasn't a Stevenote, exactly, but Tuesday's music event still dished out three-quarters of an hour's worth of Stevetastic product announcements saturated in Reality Distortion Field energy, so it's no surprise that we've entered the post-Stevenote doldrums just the same. All attention is on the iPod U2 Special Edition, the iPod Photo, and the nine new countries added to the iTunes Music Store, so any other potential drama has receded temporarily into the background. It's like Thanksgiving; after the calorie-fest, people need time to recline in a post-gluttony digestive coma, so don't expect much else exciting to happen in the Apple realm for a few days.

Except that people still seem to have mustered the energy to fire up their E*Trade accounts and grab a few more shares of AAPL, we see, because Apple's stock price shot up another $2.33 on Wednesday to close at over $50 a share for the first time since it drove off a cliff four years ago. We understand that Mac users generally get a lot more excited about spiffy new gadgets to play with than dry financial stats like market capitalization, but it's worth noting that if AAPL closes up another 80 cents or so, Apple will officially be a $20 billion company. It's just one of those milestone thingies that we have to point out, even if it's fundamentally useless to most of the customer base. It's a law or something. Blame the SEC.

So why the latest price spike? Well, as much as we'd all like to believe that Apple's stock price rises sharply every time the company ships a hot new product, we know deep down that price changes of more than a couple of bucks generally only occur when 1) the company announces new revenue projections, or 2) some analyst issues an upgrade or downgrade to the stock. This time it wasn't an upgrade, per se, but according to Forbes, Merrill Lynch has "raised estimates on Apple Computer after the company unveiled its iPod Photo-- earlier than the research firm expected-- and announced the iPod U2 Special Edition." The firm acknowledges the usual grumbling about high prices, but points out that "that was the initial reaction to the iPod mini," too, and we all know how much of a flop that turned out to be.

So with swanky new iPods available for the holiday shopping season, Merrill Lynch now expects increased sales to pump up Apple's fiscal Q1 revenue by an extra $100 million or so-- and increase the company's quarterly profit from 40 cents per share to 42. That's all it takes to send the traders scrambling for the "Buy!" button? Well, yeah-- let's put those numbers in more absolute terms: an extra 2 cents per share of profit is an extra $7.8 million, which isn't exactly pocket change unless you're a Seattleite with a penchant for bad sweaters and worse haircuts. And an extra $100 million puts the quarterly revenue projection at $2.95 billion; that's a 26 percent increase above last quarter's revenue (which itself was good enough news to have tacked a ten-spot onto Apple's stock price), and a 47 percent increase-- or nearly a billion dollars-- more than the same quarter last year.

No wonder Wall Street's happy; it's beginning to smell a lot like Christmas. Or money. Whichever.

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"Macintosh"? What's That? (10/27/04)

Okay, we've made our peace with it: yes, Apple now has a separately-branded online iPod Store. Yes, it really does make the Mac look like a second-class afterthought. Yes, even the "vanilla" Apple Store gives more and better screen real estate just to the iPod Photo than to all Macs combined, and when taken together, all iPod models score twice as much "shelf space" as the Macs do. Heck, even in the text links in the sidebar, even the iPod accessories are listed before the Macintosh gets a mention. And yet, somehow, that's okay.

First off, let us just say that we're well aware that a certain militant Mac subculture views the iPod as little more than a monumental distraction to Apple's God-given task of creating the best personal computers on this or any other plane of existence; if the company hadn't been tinkering around with shiny little music doohickeys, they say, we'd all be using Tiger now instead of waiting until the "first half of 2005." Heck, consider how much has happened music-wise in just three years since the iPod was first announced: four complete generations of iPods, more than two full revisions of iTunes to support them, the introduction of the iPod mini and the iPod Photo, the debut of the iTunes Music Store, its continuous improvement and expansion into twelve other countries, the advent of AirTunes and AirPort Express... geez, given how much development has obviously been sunk into the iPod and its related technologies, forget about Tiger-- we'd probably be done with Lynx, Leopard, and Cougar and three point release updates into Mac OS X Ocelot by now, running on dual-processor PowerBook G5s. Or so they say.

Even the not-so-militant have to wonder if Apple's newfound love affair with music comes at some slight expense of the Macintosh platform. You don't have to be clinically paranoid to see the changes in the way Apple presents itself to notice that it's playing up its public identity as "the iPod company" while de-emphasizing the Mac side of things. After all, when was the last time you saw a Mac commercial on TV? The iMac G5 even looks like an iPod, which was clearly intentional, as Apple highlights that point every chance it gets. But like we said, aside from a little twinge of perfectly understandable knee-jerk paranoia, we're fine with it.

The trick is trusting that Apple isn't slowly phasing out the Mac to focus exclusively on iPods and similar consumer electronic appliances (a scenario which is becoming ever less ludicrous as the iPod accounts for a larger and larger chunk of Apple's revenue), but rather wielding the iPod's popularity like a mad ape swings a tire iron... while it can. Steve Jobs is no fool; he knows that the public has a short memory and nothing stays on top forever. (Remember the original iMac Fever? Exactly.) But while the iPod is such a ubiquitous social phenomenon, why not milk it for all it's worth? Build Apple's brand even bigger, expand the company's user base beyond those same 25ish million Mac users that keep coming back for more, get them hooked on Apple instead of merely the Mac? Sell Macs to iPod customers as well as iPods to Mac customers and keep them on the hook for whatever the next big thing turns out to be?

The best way to do that is to pump up the brand with a solid market winner. Most people may know what a Mac is, but not all of them think it's the best computer available. (Heathens, mostly. And blind people with brain damage. But still.) In contrast, everybody knows what an iPod is, and they all know it's the top dog, to boot. And when non-Mac users visit Apple's web site, they're looking for iPods; the company may as well make them as easy as possible for people to find. And buy. And get hooked on.

So, no, we don't think that Apple is phasing out the Mac to focus on iPods and related products; it's just a matter of what image is best for the company right now... and what's best for Apple is also what's best for the Macintosh. For now, at least. Of course, that doesn't mean we don't still get the occasional panic attack, but hey, it keeps us young.

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Check A Fact For A Change (10/27/04)

Okay, we may very well be dreaming, here (there's a lot of "not believing our own eyes" going on, what with the Red Sox sweeping the World Series and all), and we were going to rant about John "The Gooch" Dvorak's latest spot of drivel about how the release of the iPod U2 Special Edition has apparently precipitated the imminent collapse of Western Civilization or something, but we suspect the article's been changed. When faithful viewer Gilbert first pointed it out to us, we could have sworn that Dvorak had made the wildly inaccurate assertion that the U2 iPod included 400+ U2 tracks preloaded on its hard drive.

If that was indeed what he said, then the article's been edited, because now it complains that Steve Jobs forces owners of the U2 iPod to "download the U2 collection later instead of putting it on the unit himself." Maybe it always said that and we're just hallucinating again; no matter, though, since if it was amended after someone finally clued him into the fact that the U2 iPod has no preloaded music (something which he would have known for himself in the first place if he could have pretended to be an actual journalist just long enough to read a freakin' press release), that person failed to mention to him that the U2 iPod doesn't include any U2 songs at all, preloaded or not-- merely a coupon for $50 off the purchase of the $149 U2 collection. In other words, he's wrong no matter what, which is sort of a bummer for him, because his article largely springs from his mistaken assumption that U2's music comes with the U2 iPod, whether you have to download it or not.

(Whoever tipped him off should also have mentioned that the product isn't an "iPOD," but rather an "iPod"-- a fact Dvorak himself could have gleaned from, say, loading Apple's home page, or just not having been comatose and/or addicted to prescription cough syrup for the past three years.)

Anyway, as best as we can make out, John's complaint is that the U2 music bundled with the iPod (which doesn't actually get bundled, mind you) is worth a lot less than the $149 Apple charges for the standalone collection. He figures that since older back-catalog songs can typically be licensed for inclusion on crappy K-teleqsue as-seen-on-TV compilation CDs (like Monster Ballads-- "they taught us how to love!") for "4-cents a track to 18-cents a track with today's average hovering at about 13-cents," Apple's actual cost to assemble the U2 collection is only about $50, meaning that "the bundle done as a licensing deal should be sold for far less than $100, not $149."

Of course, since he went to Fantasy Records for his pricing data, Johnny-boy has apparently forgotten that Apple doesn't make jazz compilation CDs, or he fails to consider that licensing a song for online distribution doesn't necessarily cost the same as licensing it for inclusion on a CD. Everything we've seen thus far has indicated that Apple pays the record labels "62 cents or more" per song downloaded (regardless of how old the songs might be), and the labels may well have insisted on a price premium to help offset its losses to digital piracy or some such nonsense like that.

In any case, Dvorak certainly can't reasonably claim to know what Apple's licensing cost of the U2 catalog might be, and nor can we; we assume that Apple's getting a nice discount on the U2 stuff due to the cross-promotion, but we don't pretend to have any numbers. Regardless, we can certainly say this: if Apple were really paying as little as four cents for all its older tracks, the iTunes Music Store would be posting way higher profits than it has thus far.

So, to sum up, John Dvorak's outright wrong about half the stuff he says and the other half can't be reasonably verified. In other words, as usual, it's journalism at its finest. Yee-haw.

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