The Failure Of Google Glass Is A Useful Warning To Investors

Google_Glass_with_frameLast week Google announced that it would not be proceeding with another round of Google Glass for 2015, meaning that the most ambitious experiment in wearable technology had come to an end. Google Glass has many failings, ranging from looking stupid to attracting angry mobs of people, but it did seem to be the vanguard of wearable technology. Wearable tech has attracted a great deal of attention, both from consumers and investors, but I have a feeling that it’s rise may be overstated.

For the most part wearable technology is a subset of the “internet of things“, the growth of cloud computing, mobile sensors and high speed communication between stuff. The most beneficial forms of this could be about smart city grids communicating with cars to smooth traffic flows and reduce congestion. In reality it is largely counting how many steps you take everyday.

Looking past the incredible number of terrifying elements about our privacy and data mining that go along with these devices, by and large most wearable technology hasn’t really taken off. Google Glass may be a high end flop, but the vast amount of wearable devices on the markets today have yet to win over big audiences. They remain largely niche devices with a high drop off rate. Where as people adopted smartphones on mass, many people have just shrugged their shoulders and moved on, while those that do buy into wearable tech often stop using it after a few months. This suggests that there is a disconnect between understanding what smartphones get right and wearables get wrong.

That gap is clearly frustrating tech companies, and it will be interesting to see whether Apple’s first wearable device, the Apple Watch, is able to change the pattern. But for investors the allure of the new as a reason to invest should be tempered, and excitement over the prospect of “the next big thing” and the importance of getting in on the ground floor may prove financially costly.

Take for instance TESLA Motors (TSLA: Nasdaq). Tesla may be a car company, but it is treated like a technology company on the stock market, meaning that it is currently trading with a ridiculous P/E ratio, close to 130x next years earnings. Put simply, if Tesla were to pay out all of its earnings to its shareholders it would take 130 years (given current earnings) for you to receive the equivalent value of what you paid for a share. That gives Tesla, a company that sells cars by the thousands a market cap similar to General Motors, a company that sells cars by the millions.

That’s crazy, but normal for the tech world. This has been exceptionally true social media sites like Twitter, Linkedin and Pinterest. All of them also trade well and above “normal” valuations, especially given that they don’t make anything.

The lesson for investors is to be cautious about technology companies. They come with a host of pitfalls and unique qualities that are frequently glossed over in the excitement of the new. Investors have been swept up before with the prospect of some great new device that can’t go wrong, but with some notable exceptions much technology often finds itself on the scrapheap of history. Or maybe we will all start carrying around smart glasses for every beverage

 

Why I Just Bought A BlackBerry

passport_desk

In the hunt for returns in the jungle of investing we rarely talk about “quality of life”, but it should be remembered that the whole reason for investing is precisely that; to preserve and improve one’s quality of life, either through retirement savings, covering and planning for education or making purchasing a house feasible. That’s what this is all for.

So it’s easy then to get lost in the mechanics of investing. At the charts (see #MarketGlance) the news and the conferences:

https://twitter.com/Walker_Report/status/515164444604006400

This tends to create a disconnect between how we experience the world and how we want our investments to work. For instance I am a big believer in Apple products. (AAPL). I like their phones and computers, I’m in their ecosystem, and as an investor I am impressed at their success as a company. But as a user of an iPhone I’ve started to wonder just how much time I waste under the pretence  of having a highly capable phone.

Apple Stock over the last ten years
Apple Stock over the last ten years

When the iPhone first came to Canada I was struck by the idea that I could look up directions easily, check the internet quickly for information and have access to my emails. When first introduced the iPhone was a tool of productivity. Since then the smart phone market has been flooded and “feature creep” is definitely a term I would use to describe what many of these phones can now do. Meanwhile productivity has taken a backseat to a host of other competing and primarily entertaining functions. In short, I was tired of wasting time on my phone doing nothing.

And along came Blackberry offering, in some ways, a phone that promises to do less fun stuff, and do more work stuff. And while I had shunned Blackberry for years, based largely on my own terrible experience with the older models and their tiny screens, the new Passport seemed to offer me not simply a useful phone for doing work, but also terrible one to watch Netflix on. Because why am I watching Netflix on my phone in the first place?

Are angry birds really the best use of your time on a $1000 phone?
Are angry birds really the best use of your time on a $1000 phone?

We live in an age of giant flat TVs with instant movie watching capabilities, but for reasons beyond me I’ve taken to watching stuff on my phone. So while I love Apple, and believe that they have a great company, I’m hoping that I can improve my quality of life by degrading my phone experience somewhat.

Maybe there is hope for Blackberry yet.

Recommended Read: The End of Absence: What We’ve Lost in a World of Connection by Michael Harris

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Super Cool New Device Won’t Fix the Economy

Apple just unveiled its new watch (called the Apple Watch no less) and briefly I watched the stock price climb quickly as the promise of Apple’s great new thing came to life. But before Apple had its big webcast yesterday, I was actually having a look at this nifty thing called NAVDY.

NAVDY seems like a great idea and its one of many many great things that is regularly and constantly being developed by an increasingly connected world that funds great ideas through websites like kickstarter.com. But like many new great things that I see, most of them won’t dramatically change the economy in any significant way. Specifically, none of these new businesses will create a great number of new jobs.

This may seem like a small point to quibble over, however when we look through the prominent industries that tend to occupy the business sections of newspapers, like Apple Computers, you begin to realize that very few of these businesses do much in the way of employment. Improvements in productivity, automation and robotics continue to eat away at an industrial base that forces young people into retail sectors, and an older generation into early retirement.

More people are employed in Canada year-over-year, however it has involved net losses in high employment sectors combined with net gains in high-education sectors.
More people are employed in Canada year-over-year, however it has involved net losses in high employment sectors combined with net gains in high-education sectors. Many of the jobs that employ lots of Canadians present opportunities for automation. Click on the image to view a larger version.
From Stats-Can - the widening gap in unemployment spells. Being employed in manufacturing meant you could be out of work longer in Canada than in non-manufacturing based jobs.
From Stats-Can – the widening gap in unemployment spells. Being employed in manufacturing meant you could be out of work longer in Canada than in non-manufacturing based jobs.

Where there were once middle class factory jobs for thousands of Canadians they are now increasingly rare, and often exist through substantial subsidization from the provincial or federal government.

This story isn’t new. In fact it’s so old now that the first real impact of it dates back to the 1980s. But as time marches on and we are increasingly numb to this reality it may have escaped our attention just how great a challenge this is posing to our society.

For instance, today, Vox.com posted an article about “Why you need a bachelor’s degree to be a secretary“, focusing on how many jobs are “up-credentialing”.

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Industrial decline also plays an indirect role in rising housing markets in cities. It’s easy to see that falling employment in traditionally well paying blue-collar sectors may contribute to higher crime rates and stagnant wages, but it also tells us where it makes the most sense to live. Young Canadians finishing university are unlikely to move back to Windsor when the best jobs are now in Toronto, fuelling a condo boom while raising housing prices across the city to the point of being unaffordable to new families.

From the Economist, January 18, 2014: Briefing: The Future of Jobs - Retail services continue to grow as other market sectors decline.
From the Economist, January 18, 2014: Briefing: The Future of Jobs – Retail services continue to grow as other market sectors decline.

All of this speaks to a larger and more looming issue for Canadians, which is that continued improvements in automation place long term pressure on things like infrastructure and wealth distribution and raise other questions about middle class viability. In other words, we seem eager to introduce new technologies into our lives, but each of these technologies doesn’t just reduce jobs, they reduce jobs that employ lots of people. The January 18th, 2014 Economist ran a frightening story about this kind of automation and that up to 47% of existing jobs could come under pressure by new forms of cost effective robotics and computers.

It’s often hard to see changes that are incrementally slow, but changes are occurring, and over the coming years and decades these changes will likely shake out in ways that we aren’t expecting. But for Canadians looking to save and retire in the future, many of these trends are coming together in worrying ways. In the form of higher educational costs, more limited job opportunities, higher costs of living and potential unemployability, and sadly the new industries and businesses we are quick to promote won’t likely be enough to stave off a society that is undergoing a significant shift in how it employs people.

All of this is a lot to explain in a single article. But if you’d like a simple video that does a good job of scaring you, please watch this video by Youtuber CPG Grey, whose excellent video from a few weeks ago got widely picked up and shared on the web. Otherwise, if you’d like to talk about getting set-up with a savings plan, either for yourselves and kids please give me a call!

Why Apple is a Good Lesson on Investing

Over the last few years some elements of the stock market have seemed fairly crazy. Tech stocks, often belonging to social networking sites like Twitter, have had an unbelievable run. Meanwhile Apple Computers (a favourite of mine) have frequently been heavily criticized for declining revenue growth and slowing sales numbers. Business commentators like to point to the growth in Google’s Android phone platform and its large share of the mobile phone market as proof that Apple’s days as a global leader are past.

However with Apple’s most recent earnings report out there are some important things to take note of. The chief reason that we invest in companies is because they make money, and Apple is currently one of the most profitable companies around. How profitable? Take these statistics published today in Slate.com.

If Apple’s iPhone was it’s own company it would be larger than 474 companies on the S&P 500 index and would have revenues in excess of Amazon, Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Google and E-bay. iphone.png.CROP.promovar-mediumlargeThat’s just its phone division. The iPad, whose sales numbers are definitely plateauing if not declining is still a valuable business netting $5.9 billion in revenues, greater than Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, Groupon, and Tesla combined. ipad_1.png.CROP.promovar-mediumlargeMac Computers, which earned less than the iPad division, still garnered an impressive $5.5 billion. Even the iPod, now almost totally forgotten in the midst of smartphones and iPads still earned an impressive $442 million, 77% than Twitter’s $250 million in quarterly revenues.

Apple’s stock has periodically taken a licking, but has been beating its way back to its previous high (partly due to a recent stock split and dividends periodically being paid), but its story is an important cautionary tale.

Apple Stock Price
Apple Share Price History

Good investing comes from choosing companies that produce revenue and retain growth potential, in other words focusing on the fundamentals of investing. Despite naysayers, that’s exactly the kind of company Apple has been. So why does Apple get so much negative attention? Because predicting the fall of a Goliath is exactly the kind of thing that makes news. Whether it’s true or not is irrelevant in the news cycle, but it is a source of bad investor advice, and should serve as a cautionary tale to investors considering taking financial advice from business news.

Apple May Have Just Won the Tablet Wars

Global Tablet Sales
In 2013 global sales of tablets reached just over 195 million. Of that Apple sold over 70 million tablets, growing their year over year sales.

As of today you can download and use Microsoft Office on your iPad. This news has hit my family with a yawn, but to me this is an excellent signal for the long term financial health of both Apple and Microsoft. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Apple may have just won the tablet wars for the foreseeable future.

In case you don’t know Microsoft has been hurting. Not financially. It’s doing great financially, but as a company where being “with it” seems important, Microsoft is decidedly not. Steve Baumer, the recently retired (and Bill Gates hand picked) CEO made several attempts to broaden and improve Microsoft’s product offerings, but many of them fell flat. The most notable has been Windows 8 and the Surface tablet, the new operating system that was meant to take Windows into the mobile era. The reception to both the Surface and Windows 8 has been so negative that the cost has been extraordinary. Microsoft has already announced Windows 9 and it is expected that it will be a return to the things that people love most about Windows.

Part of the strategy for moving into mobile computing had been to withhold Microsoft Office from the iPad. Office is still the bread and butter of the business world and it drives much of the revenue for Microsoft. The thought had been that limiting Office to a Microsoft platform would make their tablets more desirable and would steer the mobile business world towards Microsoft products. How wrong they were. Apple accounts for 73% of mobile enterprise solutions (sorry Blackberry). Even without the Microsoft Office platform people and businesses preferred to use the iPad, using different apps and numerous work arounds to integrate the Apple product into their business life.

Some will assume that the availability of Office for the iPad signals some kind of death knell for Microsoft’s future in the mobile world. I doubt that. If anything it will make them stronger. It will help solidify Microsoft Office as both the preferred software for businesses, renew interest in its personal use, and ease the pressure to choose the “right” tablet knowing that software can be shared across multiple platforms. The bigger story here is for Apple. Apple’s mobile operating system (iOS) may lag behind the sheer volume of users of Google’s Android operating system, but Apple easily sells the most tablets of any one company. In fact in 2013 Apple sold nearly double the number of iPad’s compared to its nearest competitor, Samsung.

But with the arrival of Microsoft Office it seems clear that Apple is likely to retain the profitable sector of personal and business tablets. Whether this ends up being reflected in the stock price of Apple is yet to be seen.

Bitcoin looses $500M, 21st century turns out to be terrifying

Bitcoin-deal

Last week I made mention of the disappearance of Mt.Gox, the world’s largest Bitcoin Exchange. On that day it seemed that nobody knew what had happened, except that it had simply disappeared. When it did reappear it had been the apparent victim of a cyber attack that ultimately resulted in the theft of 740,000 bitcoins, worth close to $500M USD and led to the company’s bankruptcy. Since then a great deal of ink has been spilled on the story, and you can read some great reporting on it here, here, and here. But guess what? The fun is just getting started, as the CBC has reported today that another$ 600,000 USD were stolen from Flexcoin, another exchange that has been hacked.

I’m going to let other people smarter than me argue over the future of Bitcoin. The real issue of the Bitcoin thefts is how terribly exposed we all are when it comes to our online security and privacy.

Quite regularly we tend to dismiss the digital world as not being as important as the real one, but in many ways we are far more vulnerable and know a great deal less about what is happening on computers and through the internet. Criminals, governments and corporations are all equally interested in what we do online, and billions of dollars are being spent on trying to learn, understand and steal aspects about ourselves.

The rise of Bitcoin and its subsequent thefts have merely shown how easy it is to steal millions of dollars without leaving your couch. For those of us that would dismiss this as the concern of enthusiastic tech heads, I would point to the growing body of news and statistics that show that we all have a web presence that is constantly being monitored and mined for information. For instance:

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want you living in fear. However the reality is that our highly interconnected world has commoditized you. We willingly provide mountains of data about ourselves for free because we assume it isn’t valuable to anyone else. But it turns out that where you live, where you eat, what products you buy, how often you visit certain locations and your general personal details all have a dollar value. But we don’t talk or act like they do. It doesn’t help that when companies or governments get caught snooping through what we have assumed are the decidedly unimportant bits of our lives that they tell us that it’s no big deal.

This would all be different if we understood that our information had a price. You could choose to sell it, or choose to improve your privacy. Legislators could pass laws to make privacy statements clearer and give control back to citizens about what companies and governments seek to know. You could receive fair value for information about yourself, and you could pay for additional privacy features that protected you from hackers as well as other private interests.

The genie is out of the bottle, and I predict that in the future the market for online privacy will grow as we become increasingly exposed to electronic risk. Until then I think I can recommend a new smart phone:

Don’t Forget to Like This Market Bubble on Facebook!

Say No to FacebookHow much would you pay for something that is free? This is the basic question behind trying to value the many forms of social media that have dominated the business news over the last few years. Pinterest was valued earlier in 2013 at $3.8 billion. It makes no money. In Twitter’s initial pubic offering its share’s rose to over $45, giving the company a value in excess of $30 billion. It also has yet to turn a profit. Linkedin does make money, but it’s valued like a company that makes 100x more than it actually does. Facebook, which does turn a mighty profit, generates that money not from their user base, but from companies trying to engage its user base. While Facebook does have a lot of users, many of them don’t like advertising on their profile and click rates for advertising have been reported as lower than advertising on the web in general.

What we have then is an abnormal situation where investors appear to be willing to pay big money for companies that don’t seem to be even close to making any of that investment back (some companies don’t even seem interested). In contrast companies like Apple have seen huge fluctuations in their share value on the mere speculation that they may not make quite as much money as previously thought.

To my eyes this has all the makings of a market bubble. I’ve written about the absurd way we seem to value internet businesses that don’t make any money before. One theory for these valuations is that these businesses are highly scalable. Adding more users doesn’t cost much more in terms of effort. Other theories include the idea that while many of these businesses may yet to turn a profit, the sheer number of dedicated subscribers means that the business model simply needs to be worked out.

My view on this is that there is a lot of hope attached to a lot of uncertainty. Investment excitement behind companies like Pinterest, Linkedin or Twitter, which have high valuations and little to no earnings, is driven more by a “don’t miss out” attitude. In comparison businesses that have actual earnings, products and market presence are judged far more critically and by more rigorous standards.

I think a good acid test here is what investors are being encouraged to buy compared to say, an actual tech company. In the last few months Google has acquired both robotics maker Boston Dynamic and recently Nest, the innovative thermostat and smoke detector company. Both of these companies make things. Amazing things. None of these things require you to like, share, link to or visit a page. Instead they are making tangible things that people want, or will want. The same is true for Apple computers, Samsung, GM, Toyota, Coca-Cola and Proctor & Gamble.

As investors its important not to lose focus that the ideal investment is one that provides the steak, not just the sizzle.

Is the Internet Making Business Weirder?

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If there is any doubt about whether the internet is changing how we do business I think it is best summed up in the above chart from Statista.com, which highlights both how Amazon continues to grow its sales while simultaneously losing money.

The point here is not to criticize Amazon’s business practices. Its an enormously successful company, but its share price has continued to grow in the face of declining revenues. What other company could operate like this outside of the internet? Apple, who I’ve written about before, is uniquely profitable but is frequently criticized for not growing enough even while it crushes its competitors.

The other way to look at this is whether Walmart would be given similar considerations? Amazon is spending and investing everything that they make, and in the process some of those investments run at a loss. This is good for us, but its rare that the market rewards companies who ignore the shareholder so entirely for the sake of the consumer.

The question of what effect the internet is having on business only gets more confusing when you find out that Pinterest is valued at 3.8 billion with zero revenue and Twitter isn’t expected to make a profit until 2015.