Acquisition mode

A shopping list for Apple’s post-Beats era

May 22, 2014
May 22, 2014

Apple is—supposedly—buying Beats, the headphones and streaming music company, for $3.2 billion. (The last news on this, a week ago, via Recode’s Peter Kafka, was that the deal would be finalized this week.) Assuming the deal closes, wishful thinking in the tech industry—where everyone’s always looking for more big, hungry bidders—is that this could mark the start of a trend of bigger acquisitions by Apple.

Up to now, Apple has mostly bought companies you’ve probably never heard of for their technology, talent, or intellectual property. They include Quattro Wireless, a mobile-advertising firm that built the iAd business; Chomp, an App Store search tool; and the engineering team behind Color, a failed mobile app. What Apple hasn’t historically done is buy well-known firms for their existing brands, products, or audiences—unlike, say, Google’s YouTube acquisition, Facebook’s Instagram purchase, or Yahoo’s Tumblr deal. Perhaps, in part, that’s been because Apple had more than enough world-changing products in its own pipeline, and preferred to invent internally.

But it’s been fashionable for a while now to say Apple’s innovation engine has run out of steam, or is at least in a lull of sorts. If Beats isn’t a one-off but signals a shift in CEO Tim Cook’s strategy, there are more deals worth considering—other strong products worth building around, not just integrating. And Apple has the cash to buy any or all of these companies without blinking.

SoundCloud

iTunes is the world’s largest music store, and Beats Music—the small streaming service that Apple is buying along with Beats’ larger headphone business—may become Apple’s answer to Spotify, which is gaining traction. But unreleased—and indie—music is frequently posted on SoundCloud, earning it the moniker “YouTube for music.” Twitter was reportedly interested in buying SoundCloud but has since backed out; Apple (or Google) seems a better fit. And as SoundCloud takes more share in podcast hosting—not just music—Apple gets a potential replacement for its antiquated distribution system.

Estimated price: $1 billion, considering SoundCloud’s last funding round valued it at $700 million. The Wall Street Journal reports (paywall) that Twitter’s interest in SoundCloud faded because “the numbers didn’t add up.” A deal-thirsty Apple may be less sensitive.

Vimeo

YouTube isn’t for sale, but if Apple wants to expand in video, IAC—which owns websites like OKCupid, Ask.com and CollegeHumor—may be happy to part with Vimeo. The site has established itself as a home for high-quality indie videos and has more recently moved into on-demand rentals. (Vimeo’s “Watch Later” feature is a great, unsung use for the Apple TV.) iPhone and iPad users shoot a lot of videos; Apple could make Vimeo an easier way to host and share those than Facebook or YouTube, for example. This is a classic case of “why buy when Apple could build?” but Vimeo already exists and works, and its brand and community have value.

Estimated price: Less than $500 million. IAC reportedly tried to sell part of Vimeo in 2012 at a $300 million valuation.

Dropbox

The real promise of mobile computing is having your entire digital existence available at all times, from anywhere. That’s pretty much Google’s entire strategy, and it ought to be central to Apple’s too. Yet iCloud, the last product Steve Jobs introduced, is still a disappointment—good luck even storing all of your photos there, the sort of no-brainer feature that should ship with every Apple device. So Apple should buy Dropbox—arguably the best personal cloud storage service in the business, at least among those not owned by Google—make it the real iCloud, and install Dropbox CEO Drew Houston as its head of cloud services. The main question is whether Houston would even want that job, when Dropbox seems so soundly set to remain independent and grow into one of tech’s leading platform companies.

Estimated price: $20+ billion, if it’s for sale at all. Dropbox recently raised capital at a $10 billion valuation.

Tesla

This is mostly in jest, but the electric car maker actually fits Apple’s profile very well: a vertically integrated, hardware-based business model, top technology and design, and the beginning of a global market—electric vehicles—poised to explode. You might also argue that many of Apple’s platforms and services (music, mapping, telephony) fit naturally in a car, and that only the deepest of partnerships could produce the best results. (Apple’s early integrations with other car makers have been underwhelming so far.) But does Tesla’s Elon Musk really want to work for someone else? And does Tim Cook dare violate everything Apple has ever said about focus? Probably not.

Estimated price: $30 billion—a 25% premium over Tesla’s enterprise value—might get the deal done. But this one’s admittedly unrealistic.

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