The Mystery of Apple, Inc.'s One-Time Services Boost

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Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) reported fiscal fourth quarter earnings last week, and it was a blockbuster release both in terms of the September quarter as well as guidance for the December quarter. However, there was one big question mark buried within the release: a one-time positive adjustment of $640 million that was booked in the services segment.

Total services revenue jumped 34% to hit a new quarterly record of $8.5 billion, and $640 million is nothing to sneeze at, representing 7.5% of services revenue in the quarter. Apple's explanation was incredibly vague, merely stating: "Services revenue in the fourth quarter of 2017 included a favorable one-time adjustment of $640 million due to a change in estimate based on the availability of additional supporting information."

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There was hope that Apple would provide additional detail in its 10-K, but the iPhone maker merely repeated the same language in its annual report. Beyond a passing mention or two, the adjustment was also not discussed in detail on the conference call. What's going on with this one-time boost?

Is it Google?

The most feasible explanation is that this adjustment is related to Alphabet (NASDAQ: GOOG) (NASDAQ: GOOGL) subsidiary Google, which reported a meaningful increase in traffic acquisition costs (TAC) last quarter.

The TAC to distribution partners is the line item to focus on, which jumped 54% last quarter, as this relates to what Google pays to "browser providers, mobile carriers, original equipment manufacturers, and software developers."

Conference call clues

On Alphabet's earnings call, CFO Ruth Porat highlighted mobile as a driver of rising TAC expenses (emphasis added):

On top of that, Porat added that TAC is expected to increase as a percentage of revenue going forward. Barclays analyst Ross Sandler asked if the TAC agreements might change as mobile search matures, and Google CEO Sundar Pichai emphasized the value in these deals:

It's probably Google

There's a big difference in mobile relative to desktop, particularly as it relates to Apple. Unlike macOS, which allows users to change default browsers, iOS forces Safari to be the default mobile browser and does not allow users to change this preference. (Users can change the default search engine on both desktop and mobile.) This tight control effectively puts a much more valuable premium on mobile Safari's default search engine -- and Apple knows it.

In contrast, the rising popularity of Google's Chrome browser over the past decade as it overtook Firefox directly undermined the need to occupy Firefox's default search spot (which was long Mozilla's primary revenue source); Yahoo! scored the default search spot in Firefox back in 2014. In other words, Chrome cannot displace Safari on iOS in the same way that it displaced Firefox on desktop. It's also worth pointing out that Apple just switched Siri search from Microsoft Bing to Google too, which sounds an awful lot like a change in "partner agreements."

This all comes just months after Bernstein analyst Toni Sacconaghi estimated that Google could end up paying Apple approximately $3 billion this year in TAC, which gets booked into Apple's services business. This revenue is "nearly all profit," since Apple incurs virtually no cost in sending traffic to the search giant, which helps boost Apple's overall gross margin. It could offset some other margin headwinds that Apple is currently facing, like the current memory pricing environment. Apple's gross margin last quarter came in at 37.9%, near the high end of guidance.

Investors don't have confirmation, but all signs point to that $640 million adjustment coming from Google.

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Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Teresa Kersten is an employee of LinkedIn and is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. LinkedIn is owned by Microsoft. Evan Niu, CFA owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), and 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.