Apple has a long track record of small, cautious, unheralded acquisitions. Has the company gone off course with hugely risky purchase of Beats Music and Electronics, loudly announced at an industry conference? 

As Benedict Evans’ felicitous tweet put it, Apple’s $3B acquisition of Beats, the headphone maker and music streaming company, is a veritable Rorschach blot:

Benedict Evans Rorschach

The usual and expected interpretations of Anything Apple – with the implied or explicit views of the company’s future – were in full display at last week’s Code Conference after the Beats acquisition was officially announced during the second day of the event. Two of the conference’s high-profile invitees, Apple’s SVP Craig Federighi and Beats’ co-founder, Dr. Dre (née André Young), quickly exited the program so all attention could be focused on the two key players: Eddy Cue, Apple’s Sr. VP of Internet Software and Services; and Jimmy Iovine, Beats’ other co-founder and freshly minted Apple employee. They were interviewed on stage by Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, the conference creators (59-minute video here).

Walt and Kara had booked Cue and Iovine weeks before Tim Bradshaw scooped the Apple/Beats story on May 8th in the Financial Times (the original FT article sits behind a paywall; TechCrunch version here). Was the booking a sign of prescience? smart luck? a parting gift from Katie Cotton as she retires as head of Apple PR? (And was Swisher’s warmly worded valentine to Cotton for her 18 years of service a quid pro quo acknowledgment?)

After the official announcement and the evening fireside chat, the Rorschach analysis began. Amidst the epigrams, which were mostly facile and predictable, one stood out with its understated questioning of culture compatibility:

‘Iovine: Ahrendts or Browett?‘ 

The “Browett”, here, is John Browett, the British executive who ran Dixons and Tesco, two notoriously middle-brow retail chains. Apple hired him in April 2012 to succeed Ron Johnson as the head of Apple Retail… and showed him the door seven months later, removed for a clear case of cultural incompatibility. When Browett tried to apply his estimable cost-cutting knowledge and experience to the Italian marble Apple Store, things didn’t work out — and the critics were quick to blame those who hired him.

Nothing of the sort can be said of Dame Angela Ahrendts. Now head of Apple’s physical and on-line stores, Ahrendts was lured from Burberry, a culturally compatible and Apple-friendly affordable luxury enterprise.

Will Iovine be a Browett or an Ahrendts?

In a previous Monday Note, I expressed concern for the cultural integration challenges involved in making the Beats acquisition work. What I learned from the on-stage interview is that Jimmy Iovine and Eddy Cue have known and worked with each other for more than ten years. Iovine says he’ll be coming to Cupertino ‘about once a month’, so my initial skepticism may have been overstated; Apple isn’t acquiring a company of strangers.

But are they acquiring a company that creates quality products?  While many see Beats Music’s content curation as an important differentiator in the streaming business, one that would give a new life to its flagging music sales, others are not so sure. They find Beats Music’s musical choices uninspiring. I’m afraid I have to agree. I downloaded the Beats Music app, defined a profile, and listened for several hours while walking around Palo Alto or sitting at my computer. Perhaps it’s me, my age, or my degenerate tastes but none of the playlists that Beats crafted for me delivered neither the frisson of discovery nor the pleasure of listening to an old favorite long forgotten. And my iPhone became quite hot after using the app for only an hour or so.

Regarding the headphones: They’re popular and sell quite well in spite of what The Guardian calls “lacklustre sound”. I tried Beats Electronic’s stylish Studio headphones for a while, but have since returned to the nondescript noise-canceling Bose QC 20i, a preference that was shared (exactly or approximately) by many at the conference.

There was no doubt, at the conference, that Apple understands there are problems with Beats, but there’s also a feeling that the company sees these problems as opportunities. An overheard hallway discussion about the miserable state of the iTunes application (too strongly worded to repeat here verbatim) neatly summed up the opportunity: ‘Keeping Beats as a separate group affords Cook and Cue an opening for independently developing an alternative to iTunes instead of trying to fix the unfixable.’ It’s worth noting that the Beats Music app is available on mobile devices, only, and it appears there’s no plan to create a desktop version. This underlines the diminished role of desktops, and points out the possibility of a real mobile successor to the aging iTunes application.

Continuing with the blot-reading exercise, many members of the audience found it necessary to defend the $3B price tag. Some point out that since Apple’s valuation is about 3X its revenue, Beats’ purported $1.5B hardware revenue easily “justifies” the $3B number. (Having consorted with investment bankers at various moments of my business life, as an entrepreneur, a company director, and a venture investor, I know they can be trusted to explain a wide range of valuations. Apparently, Apple is paying $500M for the streaming business and $2.5B for the hardware part.)

My own reading is that the acquisition price won’t matter: If it acquisition succeeds, the price will be easily forgotten; if it fails, Apple will have bigger worries.

Ultimately, the Apple-Beats products and services we don’t haven’t yet seen will do the talking.

–JLG@mondaynote.com

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