The Beats Music Rorschach Blot


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.


Misunderstanding Apple


We’ve come to expect analysts and pundits to misunderstand Apple. More puzzling is when Apple misunderstands itself.

My three-week Road Trip of a Lifetime, driving all the way from Key West, FL to Palo Alto, was interrupted by a bout of pneumonia, low blood oxygen, paroxysmal cough and, most alarming, a loss of appetite. Thankfully, all indicators are looking good and I’m back walking Palo Alto’s leafy streets.

The succession of wheel time and downtime gave me an opportunity to contemplate two recent controversies: Fred Wilson’s prediction of Apple’s imminent fall, and rumors of Apple’s purchase of Beat Electronics. These are both manifestations of what I’ll call, for lack of a better term, Misunderstanding Apple.

First, Fred Wilson. At the recent TechCrunch Disrupt conference, the successful and articulate venture investor predicted that by 2020 Apple will no longer hold the #1 position in the tech world. They won’t even be in the top three. According to Wilson, Apple “doesn’t think about things they way they need to think about things”. Specifically, the company is “too rooted in hardware…[which] is increasingly becoming a commodity” and “Their stuff in the cloud is largely not good. I don’t think they think about data and the cloud.

I’d be surprised by Wilson’s facile, insight-free truisms, except this isn’t the first time he’s shown a blind spot when considering Apple. Wilson is famous for dumping his Apple shares at $91 in January 2009; AAPL is now at $590 or so. (He also sold Google, which closed at $528 on Friday, for a split-adjusted $160. Perhaps there’s a difference between being a venture investor, an insider who watches and influences a young company, and an outsider subjected to forces and emotions outside of one’s control.)

Calling Apple “too rooted in hardware” misunderstands the company. From its inception, Apple has been in one and only one business: personal computers (which, today, includes smartphones and tablets). Indeed, Apple’s quarterly numbers show that the sale of personal computers makes up 87% of its revenue. Everything else that Apple does, from iTunes to the Apple Store, exists to make its smartphones, tablets, laptops, and desktops more useful, more pleasant. And this “everything else” includes the lovingly machined hardware of the MacBook Air and iPhone 5. If the supporting cast does its job well, the main acts will sell in larger numbers and at higher prices.

Customers don’t buy Apple “hardware” in the same way a weekend carpenter buy nails at the friendly neighborhood hardware store. What Fred Wilson seems to miss is that hardware is more than an inert “thing” for Apple: It’s a conduit to an entire ecosystem, and it can yield an enormous strategic advantage. One such example is the 64-bit A7 processor that took everyone by surprise: 64 bits. It’s Nothing. You Don’t Need It. And We’ll Have It In 6 Months.

When the subject of commodization comes up, I invite people to look at the cars they see in the street. Are the likes of Audi, BMW, and Mercedes being commoditized? Do their owners only care that the wheels are black and round? Serendipitously, someone called “SubstrateUnderflow” answers the question in a comment on Wilson’s blog:

“…when I look around at all the cars out there, from the high end models to the most utilitarian models, almost no one buys the base stripped versions. Key devices that are central to people’s lives, comfort and utility have enough emotional SubstrateUndertow to sustain premium pricing.”

The 30-year old Mac business and its healthy margins (about 25% versus HP’s sub-5% for its PCs) shows that Apple has successfully avoided the commoditized race to the bottom that has plagued Wintel devices and is likely to accelerate for smartphones.

Wilson’s criticism of Apple’s “stuff in the cloud”, on the other hand, carries some sting. As a user of Apple’s products and services, I’m often disappointed with Apple’s Cloud offerings. I find iMessage’s quirks irritating, I see a lack of proper synchronization between iBooks on Macs and iDevices, and I’m still waiting for the Cloud version of iWorks to mature. But let’s turn to Horace Dediu for a crisp summary of Apple’s place in the Cloud:

“Not getting the cloud” means that in the last 12 months Apple obtained:
• 800 million iTunes users and
• an estimated 450 million iCloud users spending
•  $3 billion/yr for end-user services plus
•  $4.7 billion/yr for licensing and other income which includes
•  more than $1 billion/yr paid by Google for traffic through Apple devices and
•  $13 billion/yr in app transactions of which
•  $9 billion/yr was paid to developers and
•  $3.9 billion/yr was retained as operating budget and profit for the App Store.

In addition,
•  more than $1 billion/yr in Apple TV (aka Apple’s Kindle) and video sales and
• $2.7 billion/yr in music download sales and
• $1 billion/yr in eBooks sold

In summary, iTunes, Software and Services has been growing between 30% and 40% for four years and is on its way to $30 billion/yr in transactions and sales for 2014.

Horace is right; Fred Wilson clearly hasn’t done the numbers.


I was still on the road when I read about the rumored $3.2B acquisition of Beats Electronics, the company that began in the headphone business and then spawned a streaming music service.

I’m puzzled. If the rumors prove true, Apple may be guilty of misunderstanding itself.

The hardware side, headphones, is immaterial: The products may look good, but their audio quality is regularly panned. And the revenue, about $500M, doesn’t move the needle.

The current wisdom is that Apple is mostly interested in Beats Music, the subscription streaming service. But that business isn’t big, either; it has only attracted about 110K subscribers.

Maybe Apple is interested in Beats Music’s technology and its vision for the future of streaming and music curation. I took the time to watch Walt Mossberg’s interview of Jimmy Iovine in which the Beats co-founder gives hints about his plans. Iovine’s AI-with-a-human-touch solution for delivering “what comes next” is technically vague — and vaguely dystopian (“we’ll scrape your hard drivewe’ll know where you are tomorrow”). I’m not convinced.

We also have rumors that Iovine and Dr. Dre, Beats’ other co-founder, might become some kind of senior advisers to Apple management. Given what I’ve read about Dre’s troubles with the Law, including a battery charge that landed him in jail, and an assault on a female that was settled out of court, I’m troubled. How will this play inside and outside Apple?

I don’t see how such an acquisition would enhance Apple’s business model or reputation.

That said, I hope I’m as wrong as I was when I thought the iPod was doomed to fail against commoditized, yes, that word, MP3 players. I hadn’t seen iTunes behind the hardware, Cloud storage, the distribution and micro-payments infrastructure that would one day make the iPhone and App Phone.

I also see people whose intellect and motives I respect strongly support the rumored acquisition. Preeminent among them is Ben Thompson who, in his Stratechery blog, explores Why Apple Is Buying Beats. There, after positing personal computers might have reached their peak, Ben asks whether Apple is in fact reinventing itself as a kind of fashion house [emphasis mine]:

“Or are we witnessing a reinvention, into the sort of company that seeks to transcend computing, demoting technology to an essential ingredient of an aspirational brand that identifies its users as the truly with it? Is Apple becoming a fashion house? Think about it: you have Jony Ive as all-up head of design, the equivalent of a Tom Ford or Donatella Versace. There is the hire of Angela Ahrendts – why would she leave the CEO position of Burberry for a Senior VP role? You have an iPhone framed as an experience, not a product. And now you acquire an accessory maker differentiated almost completely by its brand, not its inherent technical quality.”

And ponders at the Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t of such cultural change:

“Still, I can imagine the very thought of Apple positioning itself as a fashionable luxury brand is somewhat nauseating for many of my readers. It’s an understandable reaction, and one I somewhat share. I worry that Apple is losing what makes Apple, Apple, especially that desire to make the power of computing accessible for normal people. But I also know that stasis means stagnation, and over the long-run, death.”

To be continued…