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Is Apple Inc.'s Tim Cook Right to Mock Doubters?

During Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL) most recent earnings call, analyst Steve Milunovich asked CEO Tim Cook about his view of Apple's ability to "accelerate share gains from Android because [Apple is] now in a stronger competitive position."

Milunovich is, of course, referring to the fact that Apple now has a device on the market -- the iPhone X -- that ticks all the right marketing checkboxes. It has a sharp, bright, and highly color-accurate organic light emitting diode (OLED) display, along with minimal bezels, best-in-class rear-facing cameras, and an innovative front-facing camera subsystem with 3D sensing capabilities.

Image source: Apple.

There's nothing I can point to about the iPhone X that seems obviously dated or behind the competition. That's not something I could say about the iPhone 6s, iPhone 7, or, quite frankly, even the new iPhone 8 smartphones that launched alongside the iPhone X.

Tim Cook's response to this question was quite unusual.

Cook's pivot

Cook didn't concede that , perhaps, Apple's phones may have not been viewed as such clear leadership products in the past. Instead, he defended Apple's competitiveness across these product generations, telling Milunovich that he has "maybe a different view than you do or the folks that you're quoting."

"There's always doubting Thomases out there," Cook said. "And I've been hearing those for the 20 years I've been here, and suspect I'll hear about them until I retire."

The executive then defended Apple's workforce, saying that "there's lots of fantastic people [at Apple] and they're doing unbelievable things."

Is Cook right in his apparent disagreement with Milunovich that Apple's competitive positioning was weaker over the last few product cycles than it is now? Or is Milunovich right?

I'd say Milunovich is right, but with a caveat: Apple's competitive position during the iPhone 6s and iPhone 7 generations was reasonably strong, but with some obvious gaps. For example, the bezels on the devices were relatively large, leaving Apple behind in screen-to-body ratio, and the company was slow to adopt OLED technology -- though, to be fair, Apple's LCDs, especially on the iPhone 7 series, were still excellent displays. 

But in other ways, Apple led the pack. It has consistently delivered leading applications processors and camera performance, and it has introduced innovative new features such as Touch ID and 3D Touch. The rest of the industry copied the former, and the latter was innovative but didn't catch on as Apple may have hoped. 

With this year's iPhones, those gaps are mostly closed, and next year, that positioning should strengthen further.

What Apple is missing in 2017

Though the iPhone X is clearly a leadership product, Apple's product portfolio this year isn't complete: It's missing a larger-screen iPhone X to cater to users who preferred Apple's previous-generation Plus-branded smartphones, as well as Android users who skew toward large-screen Android phones such as the Galaxy S8+ and the Galaxy Note8.

Once Apple brings such a product to market, the company's portfolio at the high end of the smartphone market should be practically bulletproof.

Image source: Apple.

That's not to say customers will switch over to Apple products in droves because its portfolio is broader, though I do think that adding a larger iPhone X to the lineup will get some Android users to switch to iOS. What it will do is give users who prefer Apple and iOS but want larger screens a clear option: They won't be easily tempted by products from competitors.

However, I'd say that the lack of a larger-screen iPhone X is a relatively minor omission from the company's iPhone lineup this year, and such a device was probably not released because Apple may have had a hard time sourcing enough components -- OLED display, 3D sensing components, and so on. 

Next year, Apple should have access to even greater OLED supply, which should make it easier for Apple to release such a device and ensure that it can manufacture them in large enough quantities to both launch the devices on time and in good supply.

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Ashraf Eassa has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple. The Motley Fool has the following options: long January 2020 $150 calls on Apple and short January 2020 $155 calls on Apple. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.