File image: Apple logo. (Photo: REUTERS/Aly).
CAPE TOWN - Apple's results have confirmed that while the days of double-digit smartphone industry growth are over, chief executive Tim Cook has a plan to withstand the slowdown.

Apple shares gained in late trading on Tuesday after the company reported iPhone sales in line with analysts’ expectations, gave a bullish revenue forecast and highlighted a surging services business.

And a new $100billion (R1.26 trillion) stock repurchase plan and higher dividend also helped.

Shares remained strong in pre-market trading yesterday, up 3%.

The numbers show that Cook’s strategy of selling a growing array of services through a base of more than 1.3billion Apple devices is working.

The smartphone sector saw shipments fall 2% in the past year, according to Strategy Analytics, so the company must evolve beyond its reliance on a device that still accounts for more than 60% of revenue.

“Slowly but surely Apple is morphing into more than just an iPhone story and is displaying ability to sustain revenue growth irrespective of iPhone trajectory,” Amit Daryanani, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets, wrote in a research note.

The company reported iPhone unit sales grew just 2.9% in the fiscal second quarter. While the flagship iPhone X may not have matched the hype from its launch late last year, the device’s $999 starting price helped boost phone revenue growth 14%. Cheaper iPhone models for emerging markets, and wearable gadgets like the Apple Watch, also drove revenue growth.

“Growth in the near term will come from higher iPhone X pricing, a lower-cost iPhone SE update, selling more services like Pay to its premium subscribers, and increasing output of its surprisingly popular watch portfolio,” said Neil Mawston, an analyst at Strategy Analytics.

Revenue from services surged 31% to a record $9.2billion in the quarter. The App Store, Apple Music, iCloud storage and Apple Pay all generated record sales, Cook said.

The company is expanding these offerings with original videos and a news subscription service.

As long as Apple continues to sell around the same number of devices each year - 217million iPhones, more than 40million iPads and almost 20million Macs in fiscal 2017 - it can sell users of these devices a growing list of services that integrate tightly with the hardware.

“You have to start thinking about Apple differently going forward,” said Dan Morgan, senior portfolio manager at Synovus Trust Company. “Apple can support the stock as the investment thesis evolves from one of product cycle to services-led growth.”

Cook suggested new services are in the works and that Apple’s installed base of devices grew by double digits from a year earlier. “This is just a huge opportunity for us and we feel very good about the track that we’re on,” he said.

Thanks to this new stream of recurring revenue, the health of the smartphone industry is becoming less relevant to Apple.

Several iPhone suppliers and manufacturers reported disappointing results in recent weeks, sparking concern that Apple’s numbers would be weak. But these companies do not gain from Apple’s expanding services offerings.

Some Asia suppliers did rally after Apple’s report, with South Korea’s LG Innotek up as much as 7.3%. But the reaction was muted for most partners, given the limited growth in iPhone sales.

Synovus’s Morgan recently estimated that services will drive about 60% of Apple’s revenue growth over the next five years. That’s a big change from the previous half decade, when 86% of the company’s growth came from iPhone sales.

Cook hinted at additional sources of growth in terms of both geographical areas and product categories.

He noted that India was an attractive new market for iPhones, similar to China several years ago.

Still, he rejected the idea that the smartphone market has become saturated. There were still a half a billion feature phones sold in the world last year, he noted.

“Over time, every phone sold will be a smartphone and so it seems to us that with that many feature phones being sold, that's a pretty big opportunity,” the chief executive told analysts. 

- BLOOMBERG