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Jessica E. Lessin, jessica.lessin@wsj.com

It’s all about how Apple is positioned by investors and the marketplace.

If it continues to be seen as a hardware business, Apple’s streak—driven by products like the iPhone and iPad—could run out quickly as smartphones and tablets get commoditized and consumer tastes change. It is a lesson learned by companies like BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion Ltd., whose tech hardware was quickly eclipsed by products from Apple itself.

If Apple is classified as a software-hardware hybrid, the company could be valued more like Internet and software makers that have recurring revenue streams and that often trade at higher price-to-earnings ratios than hardware firms.

“The market views Apple as a consumer hardware company tied to product cycles that drive volatile revenue and earnings streams,” says Morgan Stanley analyst Katy Huberty. But that view isn’t complete, she says, since “Apple customers buy into a brand that offers ease of use similar to companies like Amazon.com or enterprise companies like NetApp.”

Apple has characteristics that differ from many other hardware businesses. Its customers often upgrade their Apple products annually, far more frequently than the four-year PC upgrade cycles typically found at tech hardware businesses including Hewlett-Packard or Dell.

The history of hardware companies that stayed on top through software is short. Sony Corp., 6758.TO +2.14% for instance, lost its supremacy to Apple when the Walkman couldn’t compete with iTunes and the iPod. RIM enjoyed huge sales spurred by its email service, only to have that eclipsed by Apple and its App Store.

Now, some say there are signs Google Inc. GOOG +1.91% may do the same to Apple with online services. Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster says Apple builds great software, but gets a “C” on software services like data syncing service iCloud.