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Quietly Starting to Worry About Apple

By Chris Baines - Oct 31, 2012 at 6:45PM

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The negatives of Steve Jobs' absence.

My history with Apple (AAPL -1.94%) has been torrid. First I panned the stock, then reversed my position, and now I'm starting to quietly wonder if I reversed it too soon. 

Go ahead and give me grief, but know that I'm not afraid to change my mind when the facts change, or when I've made a mistake. As John Maynard Keynes (allegedly) said, "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" I think too many investors and analysts are afraid to change their mind for fear of being a flip-flopper. They'd rather feel cocksure but be ultimately wrong. 

Not me. For that reason, I quietly ended my bullish (and winning) CAPScall earlier this month -- after the Maps fiasco -- at $646.98.

And apparently not a moment too soon. Since that date, we've seen an underwhelming iPad mini, and now the unscheduled departure of key Jobs-era players

What makes these developments particularly worrying is that they play into the main bear argument: that Apple without Steve Jobs is not Apple.

One wonders if Apple Maps would have ever been approved if Steve were still around. And we all know what Steve thought of an iPad mini. It appears he might have been right. 

Why long-term investors should care
I'm a long-term investor. I don't pick or pan stocks for short-term reasons. But a bad product launch at Apple is different from one at Coca-Cola (KO 0.06%) for a key reason: it's relevant to the company's competitive advantage. If Coca-Cola launches a dud -- like C2 -- it makes little difference since they'll keep on selling Coke. Not a big deal. But Apple's competitive advantage relies on churning out visionary products that just simply work.

Recent events causes one to wonder if they'll continue to do so without Jobs. And that's relevant for long-term investors. 

It's particularly relevant because, unlike Coke, recurring sales aren't assured for Apple. Coke can be pretty sure that Coke buyers will buy another Coke later on, and in similar quantities, but Apple can't be assured that they will sell you another iPad in a year. You might buy Microsoft's (MSFT -2.29%) Surface instead, or simply delay a purchase. In order for Apple's sales to simply stay even, they have to get a new customer provided existing ones don't replace their order every year. When you've already taken over the world -- as Apple has -- that gets to be a tall order.

It gets be an even taller order when negative information is in the news about your company and its products. 

John Hussman had a great take on this back in April, if anyone's curious. 

Surface rising
Back in March, I bellyached that all of Apple's competitors are incompetent, which was a key reason for my reversal. That finally might be changing, and for an unexpected reason. The Microsoft Surface could be the real deal. That keyboard thing is killer. 

Which reminds me that I still like Microsoft. Microsoft has been my oldest pick here at the Fool, and while it hasn't outperformed Apple, as I predicted, there are still many years left in the decade. 

I'd expect Jobs to be able to repell a vigorous assault from Redmond. With recent news, I'm not so sure about his successors.

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Stocks Mentioned

Apple Inc. Stock Quote
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The Coca-Cola Company
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