Without an iPhone 5, Is Apple Still a Buy?

Apple's (NAS: AAPL) "Let's Talk iPhone" event has come and gone.

And the iPhone 5 didn't come with it.

Instead, Apple announced an updated iPhone 4S. The external look of the phone is largely the same as an iPhone 4. Improvements come in two main ways:

  • The innards: Apple spent quite a bit of time discussing internal improvements. The camera gets an upgrade to 8 megapixels and further improvements around the surrounding camera technology. Apple spent a whole eight minutes discussing the camera alone. Also seeing a key upgrade is the processor. Apple will be using the same A5 processor that's used in the iPad 2, which should promise both significantly improved performance and better battery life.
  • The software: iOS featured several improvements, though most were known before today's event. The biggest upgrade here was Apple's integration of Siri -- a company it bought last year -- to create a voice-based artificial intelligence system.

Why all the fuss over a new iPhone. Simply put, because the iPhone is Apple:

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Apple has moved beyond being the creator of the iPod or the "Mac maker," it's now something bigger. Combined, iOS devices drive over 70% of the company's sales and -- considering the iPhone's outsized profit margins -- an even greater percentage of its profits.

To get a view into what today's iPhone launch means and whether Apple's still a buy, I asked a team of Foolish analysts that joined me in live blogging today's events.

Evan Niu, Fool.com writer: I have to say I'm somewhat disappointed with "just" an iPhone 4S. Apple has always had the tough act of trying to balance its penchant for secrecy with the heightened expectations that go along with it. Sometimes those lofty expectations end up letting people down, like today. Apple did this before in 2009 when it just spec bumped the iPhone 3G to 3GS and no one seemed to mind back then. People were expecting a redesigned iPhone 5 today, and only coming out with a 4S promotes the perception that Apple is getting lazy or falling behind when in actuality, it's not. 

The iPhone segment has come to be Apple's largest revenue source, with $13.3 billion in net sales out of its $28.6 billion total. Apple moved 20.3 million iPhones in the quarter with an average selling price of $654. Comparing those figures with the same quarter three short years ago is astonishing. In the same quarter of 2008, Apple moved 717,000 iPhones at a lower selling price! Presently, Apple's iPhone segment alone is generating more sales than the entire company was three years ago. 

Although I'm a little let down on the lack of an iPhone 5, I'm still bullish on Apple in the context of last quarter's 142% jump in iPhone unit sales, rising ASPs (likely somewhat attributable to greater negotiating leverage with carriers in addition to product mix shifting toward higher onboard storage which carries higher margins), and the fact that the iPad segment is showing the same promising signs as the company's newest product segment. On the bright side, this practically guarantees that next year's iPhone has to be revolutionary. 

Expectations aside, the iPhone 5 would have accelerated sales growth, but the iPhone 4S should at least be able to maintain Apple's current course. Especially as Apple broadens distribution through the top three domestic and worldwide carriers. Besides, when can you ever complain that the 150% iPhone net sales growth last quarter isn't enough?

Tim Beyers, analyst for Rule Breakers and Fool.com writer: More than a year has passed since Apple last refreshed its iPhone line. Initially, some of us thought the delay would destroy the Mac maker's earnings while Wall Street analysts all but guaranteed disappointing iPhone sales last quarter. They were wrong.

Will they be wrong again? I think so. The new iPhones are more of Apple doing what it does best. Simple, functional design with plenty of room for a large library of apps but now built to accommodate almost any telephony network.

If there's a problem with the launch it's with the carriers. Almost none can claim an edge -- either here or overseas -- yet all will feel compelled to carry Apple's handsets. It's the Microsoft (NAS: MSFT) story all over again. Carriers, like the PC makers before them, will fight for share as Apple collects checks from each of them.

All of which is to say today's launch confirms what most of us already knew: Apple's business is about as secure as it's ever been. Steve Jobs couldn't have picked a better time to hand over the reins to new CEO Tim Cook.

Eric Bleeker, Fool.com tech editor and analyst: I can't say I'm entirely surprised; momentum was building behind an iPhone 4S. Yet, I'm still disappointed. I know some people will be quick to point out upgrades to the inside components and software, but by delaying the phone an extra three months Apple set the expectation for a lot of consumers waiting on upgrading that a revised iPhone would come.

So while lacking a tear-drop shape or any other cosmetic improvements might not affect the "functioning" of the phone, it does affect the premium perception and belief Apple leads hardware design. That perception is a key part of what Apple is.

Yet, Apple's a lot bigger than a simple design at this point; it's riding the momentum behind iOS. That's a key reason I still like Apple as a stock and have recommended buying it in multiple Motley Fool real-money services even if the announcement today was somewhat of a letdown.

Looking more closely at the iPhone 4S, I'll be interested to see how Apple handles its voice command function. Clearly, Apple wanted this to be the show piece, but people have tuned out because voice command has never worked well in a phone. Apple's going for something different with its artificial intelligence angle that makes voice command more functional than just talk to text.

In the end, I do think the lack of hardware changes shows the increasing difficulty of making changes as Apple's massive supply chain continues to stretch to meet surging demand. As Evan said, in the near term iPhone demand should continue unabated. Sprint (NYS: S) will get the iPhone, and future agreements with China Mobile (NYS: CHL) should also help boost sales. However, this only ups the pressure on Apple to really "wow" us whenever the iPhone 5 comes.

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At the time this article was published Eric Bleeker owns shares of no companies listed above. Tim Beyers and Evan Niu own shares of Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of China Mobile, Apple, and Microsoft. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Apple, Microsoft, and China Mobile. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a bull call spread position in Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a bull call spread position in Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Copyright © 1995 - 2011 The Motley Fool, LLC. All rights reserved. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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stoli100

i'm not a huge apple fan but I applaud them on this move. They could have made minor cosmetic changes to the case and with the new processor, 8MP camera and Siri proclaimed it the Iphone 5 but they didn't. I think you will see the 5 in a year after Sprint comes up to speed (pun intended).

October 05 2011 at 2:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
fballou757

The market is not always rational. Case in point: the recent decline from ~$421 to ~$470. Apple is cheap, compared to its financials and to its competitors -- and cheaper still compared to its opportunities. Apple consistently posts earnings beyond expectations. I think the present lull in share appreciation offers a compelling opportunity to invest in the largest, most profitable and most innovative company in the world. If you are short Apple, good luck with your strategy. Irrational market phases eventually pass, as will this one.

October 04 2011 at 6:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply