In a story that ran over at CNBC, hedge fund manager Pedro de Noronha, managing partner at a hedge fund known as Noster Capital, questioned Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) long-term staying power. In fact, he went on to suggest that, as a result of a "very competitive landscape," the company "might become obsolete in two-to-three years," hinting that Apple may suffer the same fate as many fallen technology giants before it.
Though it's not hard to construct a parallel of Apple to, say, BlackBerry, such a comparison is incomplete, at best, and flat-out wrong, at worst. While seeing out five-to-10 years, as Noronha stated he likes to be able to do for his investments, is tough for any company, I argue that Apple will still be powerful and relevant in three years' time.
The commoditized smartphone argument
Yes, it's true -- the majority of Apple's profits come from the sale of smartphones. A smartphone, in itself, isn't really a product with a high barrier to entry -- much-less-powerful companies than Apple have successfully built good smartphones. The hardware is largely a commodity at this point, and Google, with its quite good Android operating system, has lowered the software and attendant ecosystem barriers to entry rather significantly.
And yet, completely cognizant of these trends, I still contend that Apple will continue to rake in the big bucks on what "should" be "commodity" smartphones.
What does Apple have that others don't?
An aspirational brand and iOS
Apple isn't just selling customers a "smartphone" -- it's selling them an iPhone. There is significant value added that comes with the iPhone, beginning with the brand. In addition to a very valuable, luxury-like brand, an iPhone is the only place that customers can get iOS. Sure, customers can get other phones with pretty good alternative operating systems; but there are millions of smartphone buyers who simply prefer iOS. Who are Apple bears to argue the subjective notion of preference?
A very compelling retail presence
On top of that, though, Apple provides -- quite arguably -- an unmatched retail experience relative to its peers. Sure, there's a smattering of Samsung experience shops worldwide and, of course, Microsoft has its own stores, too. However, for these companies, retail is just something that they do because Apple does it. Apple does retail because it's an integral part of the value add that Apple is offering with the purchase of its products.
Don't forget the developers
Now, a little less subjectively, Apple also puts great care into developing world-class developer tools to enable and, frankly, empower developers. Yes, many of the major apps that are available on iOS are also on Google's Android at this point; but Apple's ecosystem generates significantly more revenue per user than Android does -- incentivizing developers to put more effort into the iOS variants.
Most of all, though, Apple has customer loyalty
All of the things listed above are fantastic in their own right, but they're just pieces of the overall puzzle. At the end of the day, Apple's customers tend to be very loyal because they know that, when they buy an Apple product, it will generally be a fairly painless experience. It would be unwise to underestimate the perception that a company's products "just work" -- it's an intangible notion, but it manifests itself in real sales and profit dollar terms.
Additionally, because Apple's customers tend to be repeat customers, it usually only takes satisfaction with one device category (for example, the iPhone) to compel customers to add more Apple products to their technological arsenals.
Foolish bottom line
Admittedly, much of Apple's "edge" is intangible -- and that scares some investors. How do you really quantify customer loyalty and satisfaction? How does one guess customer preferences? And, more importantly, how can one be sure that there will be enough customers to pay the "Apple premium" for devices like smartphones and tablets?
While each of those points individually is hard to call, it's much easier to make a call on a company like Apple taken as a whole. A strong management team, a powerful brand, and a clear goal to deliver class-leading products is a winning recipe -- in any industry.