Perhaps more than any time in recent memory, today is a fascinating time to own, or potentially own, shares in tech giant Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL).
The company posted what can easily be interpreted as its worst quarter under CEO Tim Cook, and yet its stock soared nearly 7% in reaction.
More meaningfully, the outlook for Apple and its shares remains unclear, as can be seen by one analyst's recent call that Apple has, in his words, "peaked."
Borrowing from the energy industry idea of "peak oil," well-known tech analyst Colin Gillis of BGC Financial recently issued a research note that read, "Our opinion [is] that Apple has peaked under the leadership of CEO Tim Cook."
Gillis went on to comment: "Our view is that there is risk that the upgrade rate for the next iPhone may slow even more than the upgrade rate cycle of 6s, which has been materially lower than the upgrade rate of the iPhone 6 as per the company."
Unsurprisingly, Gillis subsequently downgraded Apple stock to a sell rating. For good measure, he also reduced his 12-month price target for Apple stock to $85, a 23% decline from his previous price estimate. This call appears all the more controversial in the wake of the company's better-than-expected earnings. Apple's shares on Wednesday afternoon are above $103, which isn't the only counterpoint to Gillis' doom-and-gloom Apple analysis.
If not this year, then next year?
The prevailing wisdom for Apple's annual product refresh cycle is that this year's iPhone 7 will prove more of a whimper than a bang, something of an oddity given Apple's standing tradition of even-year form factor redesigns. If that proves to be the case, which isn't certain, then Gillis' expectation of tepid iPhone sales in 2017 could prove correct. That isn't the end of the story, though.
The rumor mill also claims that the company's lackluster iPhone 7 plans foreshadow a far grander plan: for Apple to release a truly transcendent iPhone for fiscal year 2018, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the device's launch. At present, features like an all-glass body, edge-to-edge display, lack of home button, wireless charging, and OLED display have all been floated as potential improvements for the 10th anniversary iPhone -- though, as with all rumors, they remain far from certain.
However, as we saw with Apple's iPhone 6, consumers will show up in droves whenever Apple is able to truly nail a new smartphone design. This means that Apple's iPhone "super cycle" could be delayed by a year. But Apple's days of growth aren't necessarily behind it, either.
Long-term growth more volatile
Looking beyond 2018, Apple enjoys at least one significant, identifiable growth driver to debunk Gillis' "peak Apple" call: Project Titan.
As we have known for some time now, Apple has at least several hundred employees toiling in attempted secrecy on the company's electric-vehicle project, which some estimates reckon could double Apple's current revenue.
Here, there are as many questions as answers: How will Apple maintain its cushy margin structure while moving into a notoriously low-margin business? How will Apple differentiate Project Titan from the masses of other electric and/or self-driving vehicles likely to reach the market at roughly the same time? These questions barely touch the tip of the iceberg. But judging by the outsized interest in the storyline thus far, consumers are open to the idea of Apple moving into the space.
Yes, Apple's growth may slow. To be sure, the company has grown so large that it will never enjoy another streak like its post-iPod golden age. However, to suggest that Apple has "peaked" overlooks the most likely path forward for the tech giant: one of low to moderate, but lumpy, sales growth, paired with Apple's cash hoard fueling continued bottom-line growth. Apple has grown up, but its best days don't seem to be behind it.