May 9, 2014
A media frenzy arose last night when the Financial Times suggested it had word from the inside that Apple is closing in on buying Beats Electronics for $3.2 billion. The immediate response from all quarters has been puzzlement and on multiple levels. As the sun rose today, so did the doubts about the impending deal. Generally, large strategic acquisitions — like when Google bought Nest for a similar figure — can be justified on the basis of buying something you don’t already have: a promising new technology, a large customer base, or entrée into a desirable industry. None of these things apply to this acquisition by Apple. Acquisitions at a more mature business stage can typically be justified purely on a revenue or margin basis or the desire to snap up a brand with more energy. Those don’t apply here, either. Even those who have tried to stretch the argument a bit have suggested that Apple could be buying Beats purely for a quick road into the music streaming business as a hedge against Spotify — except that Apple owns the music industry and doesn’t need Beats to build the music streaming offering that the company has denied for years that it should even consider getting into.
Not that Beats isn’t an attractive company worth buying; it is. But not at this price and not given what we know about it currently. Certainly, the whole deal could still come crashing down, and we’d never hear about the details. Given Apple’s historical tight-fistedness with the contents of its huge treasure chest, it wouldn’t be surprising if the company backed away, especially after last night’s trial balloon (if it was such) sputtered so badly. But let’s consider this fact: Apple is not a stupid company. Sure, Apple can make mistakes (Apple Ping, anyone?), but when it trips over itself, it usually does so on the way up a hill worth climbing. Which leads me to this flight of fancy: What if, in buying Beats, Apple knows something that we do not; Apple sees something that we do not? If true, what could it be? I offer three possibilities, in descending order of plausibility, but in ascending order of awesomeness.
- Apple Fitbit. The expectation mill is already grinding out the news that Apple is planning a big move into health and fitness monitoring, possibly as early as next month. Even as Nike discontinued its own Fuel Band for lack of sales, and reports of fitness tracker sales last year peg the number somewhere around 3 million units sold. Because Apple is a smart company, it knows that to do to this business what it did to MP3 players, smartphones, and tablets (wow, that’s pretty impressive when you think about it), it will have to change the game. There are two ways to do that, and Apple has the power to do both of them: Add cool software experiences that nobody else has and make them socially cool in a way no one else can. Beats would help with both pieces. Its music subscription would be offered free to any fitness tracker buyer to make sure buyers get unlimited access to whatever they music they desire. Plus, its branding would make the device — whether attached at the hip or wrapped around the wrist (the latter is more likely) conspicuously cool.
- Apple Glass. No, Apple wouldn’t be so obvious to call it that, but that’s what it would be: a competitor to Google Glass that would actually be cool. That would be the sole reason to tap into the Beats brand, to make unlikely wearables that people would still wear. Because, let’s be honest, who would have thought that wearing big honkin’ headphones would be cool today? At least those of us who lived through the 70s and 80s could have rightfully assumed that no one would ever don such monstrosities again, yet here we are. Apple would bring all the tech to bear — the software, the retina display (this time it would really be on your retina!), and an app ecosystem that developers would happily join. And Beats would make it all very hip. Soon, between the Glapple(?), Applass(?), iGlass(?), and the new Apple health trackers you’ll be wearing, Apple will own your body much the way it already owns your mind (at least some of you and you know who you are).
- Apple Drones, 3D printers, or body implants. Or it could be any next technology you hear about. Basically, I promised you three scenarios but got so caught up imagining No. 2 that I’m scrambling to come up with a third. And really, whatever last one I come up with, it’s really just a way to say: “Apple has the market power to do really, really cool stuff, so why isn’t it doing any of it? Please, Apple, I’m begging you.” When you consider the gobs of money Apple is sitting on, rather than despair that the company hasn’t decided to reinvent anything lately, I’d like to believe that it would team up with Beats to do something totally amazing and world-changing. Because we need some world-changing much more than we need Apple to return its hard-earned cash to investors in the form of more dividends. So even if Apple doesn’t buy Beats after all, the fact that the company is shopping encourages some of us to anticipate what it could spend its hard-earned money on next. Maybe it will be Apple Vox.