By Daniel Newman
MarketWatch photo illustration/iStockphoto, Bloomberg
When Microsoft overtook Apple to become the U.S.’s most valuable company last month, most headlines just reported it as a moment in time — an ephemeral blip before things returned to normal and Apple once again reigned supreme.
I believe this reflexive brushing aside of Microsoft’s /zigman2/quotes/207732364/composite MSFT +0.16% value is a mistake. In my view, this isn’t just a temporary situation. Rather, Microsoft stands an excellent chance of maintaining — and even growing — its lead. Why? Because fundamentally, Microsoft’s business seems more sound, robust and diversified than Apple’s /zigman2/quotes/202934861/composite AAPL +0.96% .
There is no shortage of bullish articles about Apple, so I’ll skip to the four vulnerabilities I spot in its business.
First, Apple, maker of some of the world’s most revered products, has an innovation problem: Since the Apple Watch made its debut in 2015, Apple hasn’t released anything of consequence that isn’t a mere incremental iteration of an existing product.
Second, the company has a litigation problem: While Qualcomm /zigman2/quotes/206679220/composite QCOM -0.55% is outfitting Samsung /zigman2/quotes/209800866/delayed KR:005930 -0.76% with 5G modems for their 2019 premium devices, Apple will be lucky to have its first 5G device by 2020 (unless Tim Cook makes peace with Qualcomm). Apple has gotten away with delayed rollout of new innovation in the past, but I believe the iPhone-maker has reached the end of the era in which it could still win hearts and minds with inferior technology.
Third, it has a sales problem: While still highly profitable, sales across Apple devices are falling . Suppliers that have long depended on Apple have already begun cutting production forecasts, and premium iPhones, which are supposed to be the flagship that carries Apple into the era of 5G, are in my opinion overly priced, opening up the market to Google /zigman2/quotes/205453964/composite GOOG -0.06% /zigman2/quotes/202490156/composite GOOGL -0.08% , Samsung, Huawei (in certain markets) and other contenders.
Finally, and not to be ignored, Apple production leans heavily on China and the Chinese market. Tariffs and trade wars will not, in any way, help Apple’s growth in the foreseeable future.
I believe these four vulnerabilities are the reason Apple saw its short-lived trillion-dollar stock value fall so sharply (even beyond the recent selloff), opening the door for Microsoft to pass it by.
Microsoft doesn’t suffer from these problems. Case in point: Although the software giant doesn’t have Apple’s cachet, it has not only caught up with but overtaken the iPhone maker in market cap in just 5 years. How? By turning its cloud business from an afterthought to the fastest-growing in its class. By launching a sales-as-a-subscription (SaaS) offering strong enough to force even Salesforce to take note. By overdelivering with its line of Surface convertible laptop/tablets, transforming Microsoft into a major hardware player with consumers, and for more than just the Xbox (which, by the way, is also doing quite well).
In addition, Microsoft’s massive enterprise footprint, serving over a billion monthly users ( including over 130 million users of their Office 365 products and services ), gives the company a more than enviable presence inside companies.
Microsoft also benefits from being more diversified than Apple, as its portfolio of software and hardware solutions ranges from simple office applications to the kinds of advanced business intelligence and resource planning tools that run entire enterprises. It is this diversification, along with Microsoft’s success in Cloud, hardware and gaming that positions it so well to continue to grow as a company, as a business, and therefore as a high-performing stock.
Microsoft’s stock is up nearly 26% this year through Monday while Apple, which at one point in October was up 37% for 2018, is now in the red.
Of course, markets can surprise us, especially the stock market, where Apple has often gotten the benefit of the doubt. Apple has long successfully fostered a deep emotional attachment with and from its customers and shareholders. Apple’s history of product innovation is still very much alive in many people’s minds. The question is whether that will continue to be enough if Apple doesn’t start performing again by delivering real innovation and user experiences that are truly differentiated from its competitors.
In the past few years, Apple seems to have traded its winning strategy of being No. 1 in innovation, design, performance and user experiences to focus instead on becoming a high-octane profit engine powered by iterative products being aggressively marketed on perhaps too short a refresh cycle. As a result, Apple’s product mix has grown stale and derivative, its pricing has lost touch with the reality of the market, and its users have gone from a critical mass of die-hard loyalists to a shrinking market of users who are often merely “satisfied” with Apple products.
Microsoft took the precisely opposite tack.
Five years ago, when the company was reeling from Steve Ballmer’s contentious tenure, its products had gone stale, it had missed critical technology trends like Cloud and mobile, and its hardware was laughable on its best day. Fast-forward to today: Under Satya Nadella, Microsoft is doing so well in the Cloud that it is grabbing market share from Amazon, it has enterprise products that companies actually want to use, and its line of Surface tablets/computers hasn’t just been winning in the office, but based on price, design, and power, has won consumers over as well . These wins are hard to miss, especially when compared with Apple’s business performance of late.
While Apple certainly has its strengths, I feel confident saying that Microsoft is a better long-term stock pick. Microsoft now has a momentum Apple no longer has, innovation in and outside the enterprise that Apple seems to struggle to deliver on, and a business far more diverse than Apple’s. For all of these reasons, Microsoft could maintain its lead as the U.S.’s most valuable company for years to come.
Daniel Newman is the principal analyst at Futurum Research. Follow him on Twitter @danielnewmanUV. Futurum Research, like all research and analyst firms, provides or has provided research, analysis, advising, and/or consulting to many high-tech companies in the tech and digital industries. The firm doesn’t hold any equity positions with any companies cited.