Apple could be looking for its next big revenue model

Apple has always been an evolving company. While it never really invented any product categories, it always seemed to make those product categories work better and smarter. It also found a way to make us want them, even when they were more expensive. Today, the WSJ reports, Apple is trying to find its way to a future without the iPhone at the center of its revenue model.

This shift happens as Apple reported lower revenue for the first time in years against a backdrop of flagging iPhone demand. Part of the problem is a shifting Chinese market, but it’s also due to people simply taking longer to refresh their phones. As that happens, and the price of iPhones soared to more than $1,000, there has been a decline in sales.

With iPhone sales down 15 percent, this was not a typical Apple earnings report, but it was something the company had anticipated when it announced lower Q1 guidance at the beginning of the year. If The Wall Street Journal story is accurate, Apple is already trying to take steps to move the company into its next phase, possibly as a services business.

If that’s the case, it would mark a radical departure from the company’s history in which it has redesigned various types of hardware, bucking popular design trends along the way. Back in the 1970s and 1980s when it was called Apple Computer, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak made computers with a GUI when most people were working from the DOS prompt.

In the early 2000s, Apple came out with an MP3 player called the iPod and opened a music store called iTunes. By 2006, the year before it would introduce the iPhone, Apple had sold more than 42 million units and 850 million songs. It was a combination of hardware and services that helped transform a flagging company into a powerhouse.

In 2007, when Apple introduced the iPhone, it knew that it would begin to eat into iPod sales, and it eventually did, but it didn’t matter because it was the next logical step forward. When it introduced the App Store in 2008, the iPhone became more than a standalone piece of hardware. It was a new kind of hardware-service model and it would generate incredible wealth for the company.

The iPad came along in 2009 and the Apple Watch five years later, in 2014. While each has done reasonably well, nothing has touched the success of the iPhone. Keep in mind that analysts estimated that Apple sold 71 million iPhones last quarter, and this was in a quarter in which sales declined. It’s hard to sell 71 million units of anything in a three-month period and have it be a down quarter.

What comes next is probably some combination of entertainment/content and making use of advancing technologies like AR/VR, driverless cars and artificial intelligence. It’s unclear which direction Apple will take in these areas, but we do know that recent hires and acquisitions point in these directions.

There has long been speculation that Apple could make a splashy acquisition in the content area. When Eddie Cue, Apple senior vice president of internet software and services was interviewed by CNN’s Dylan Byers at South by Southwest last year, Buyers specifically asked Cue about buying a property like Netflix or Disney. He implied that it was about taking the Apple TV and combining that with a big-name content production company.

Cue indicated that the two companies were great partners for Apple TV, but he wasn’t ready to commit to anything along those lines. “Generally, in the history of Apple, we haven’t made huge acquisitions.” He went on to explain, from Apple’s perspective, it wants to figure out where the future is and to build something to get it there, rather than buying something that is working for the current state of affairs.

It’s worth noting that Apple TV has not matched the huge success of its other devices, but service revenue has been growing steadily. In the most recent earnings report, Apple reported services revenue of $10.9 billion, up 19 percent year over year. That’s still a small percentage of the overall $84.3 billion the company reported for the quarter, but it is growing.

Regardless, nobody can know if Apple can approach the success with any product that it has had with the iPhone. But it knows that in spite of its vast riches, it’s dangerous for any company to rest on its past success.┬áSo it looks ahead and hires new blood and looks for a future with less dependence on the iPhone because it knows, as the Grateful Dead once sang, “You can’t go back and you can’t stand still. If the thunder won’t get you, then the lightning will.” Apple is hoping to avoid that fate, and perhaps it is some new combination of hardware, content and services that could lead the way.