On Tuesday night, TechCrunch’s Alex Wilhelm asked on Twitter:
If you were Microsoft/Google/Apple what company would you buy?
— Alex Wilhelm (@alex) August 27, 2014
It was late and I fired off a quick response but I thought it was a question interesting enough to be worth thinking and writing about here in more depth. So, for today’s column, I’m going to spend some time asking which companies Apple, Google and Microsoft should consider acquiring. As a bonus, I’m also going to include Amazon, which of course has just announced a major acquisition. I’ve deliberately been mutually exclusive in my recommendations, but the fact is a number of these companies would be a reasonable fit for several of the potential acquirers, since they’re all to some extent targeting the same opportunities, albeit in different ways.
Until the Beats purchase, Apple’s acquisition strategy was so predictable, you already knew the official comment the company would put out as a result: “Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time, and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans.” Apple has focused almost entirely on acquiring smaller technology companies and typically shuts down the products while building some of the functionality into future Apple products. But the Beats acquisition either changed all that or was a one-off anomaly. I suspect most of Apple’s acquisitions going forward will be more along the lines of its past acquisition than the Beats acquisition, but it might still make sense for Apple to buy something bigger “from time to time” as the company might put it.
This is a bit of a cheat because it’s so similar to Beats, but it’s also different in important ways. Bose is the headphone brand many people thought Apple should have bought because it’s a much better fit with Apple’s core product values: a premium, high end, high quality product that’s well respected and has a brand cachet among the same sort of people likely to buy Apple products. I think it’s possible Apple may use Beats and the technology it licenses to build premium headphones under its own brand and, as such, it may not be necessary to buy Bose to achieve this. But with Bose, it would acquire an existing known brand which would nicely complement the Beats brand.
Broadcom’s baseband business
This is also a bit of a cheat, because it’s not apparently for sale anymore, as the company is planning to wind it down. But it seemed an obvious fit at the time when it was for sale, because it’s well aligned with Apple’s strategy of steadily owning more and more of the components in its devices, and it would provide useful leverage against existing suppliers. It appears Apple is investing in this area organically already, and acquiring this business would have given that effort a big boost. For now, though, it appears as though Apple will continue to pursue this strategy internally rather than through an acquisition.
Apple Maps has come a very long way since the early awful reviews. I use it regularly to get from point A to point B and it’s absolutely fine for navigation purposes. But where Apple Maps falls short is its point of information (PoI) database – i.e. the set of information it has about stores, restaurants, and other businesses in any given area. I regularly find Apple Maps is unable to find the nearest location for a particular franchise or company when Google Maps finds it without any problems. This is Apple Maps’ single biggest weakness today, at least in the US, and it should invest in fixing it. Apple currently buys this data from third parties like Yelp, but it has little control over the quality of that data as a mere licensee. Acquiring Yelp would allow Apple to control the data and use it as the foundation for a more aggressive effort to build an extensive, up-to-date PoI database to help power Apple Maps.
Google’s acquisitions have been much less predictable than Apple’s, both in their scale and scope. It’s acquired companies as diverse as YouTube, Picasa, Dodgeball, Keyhole, Android, DoubleClick, GrandCentral, Motorola Mobility, Nest, Skybox and Zync Render. There is almost nothing all these companies have in common and some of its acquisitions have been pretty sizable. But given its current focus areas and the domains Google is likely to invest in next, it’s still possible to identify some possible opportunities.
This was the one company I listed in my response to Alex Wilhelm’s tweet, and it’s an obvious one. To the extent Google is serious about getting into the music subscription business, it could acquire a lot of market share and a strong existing brand in the form of Spotify. Some people questioned why Apple pursued Beats instead of Spotify, but I think the reality is Apple didn’t want the baggage of millions of users across iOS, Android, Windows Phone and the web to support, and it was partly attracted by Beats’ relatively small base. Google, on the other hand, works on a massive scale, and already operates one of the other most popular music streaming services in the form of YouTube. While Google Play Music has been somewhat successful, it’s limited in terms of the countries where it’s available and is far from a leading brand. Spotify would quickly leapfrog it into a top two position in digital music.
Jawbone, Fitbit or Withings
Google has already shown that it’s willing to acquire to establish a position in one of the three key new domains in consumer technology: home automation. But in the other two (the connected car and wearables) its efforts have largely focused, so far, on extending Android. However, there are a number of companies which have established a strong position in wearables from a fitness and health tracking perspective and which Google could potentially snap up. Jawbone, Fitbit and Withings are three obvious examples (and Withings in particular is doing interesting things in the smartwatch space). Any of these companies could give Google the sort of jump start in wearables Nest has given it in the smart home market and could be a core to wrap around other acquisitions, as Nest has become a vehicle for purchases such as Dropcam.
As Google and Amazon increasingly square off against each other across a number of areas, Google has been investing in various retail and commerce-related initiatives. But almost all of these so far have been organic and tied to existing Google properties. Pinterest would fill an interesting gap in two different parts of Google’s business: a channel for commerce and a social network. Google+ has largely failed as a social network on a grand scale (though it’s arguably succeeded in various niches), but Pinterest has massive appeal among a segment of the population. It sits quite a long way down on ComScore’s list of top mobile apps by unique visitors (number 20, just above eBay and below Snapchat and Netflix), but comes in the top 10 by time spent among users over 24. Pinterest also has enormous potential to drive commerce activity, which could help reinforce some of Google’s other commerce-related activities.
Square is, depending on who you believe, either expanding rapidly or struggling mightily. But it’s establishing itself as one of only two or three players that’s starting to build a presence in the local retail space. Amazon’s now entered that space organically with Local Register, but Google’s various efforts in mobile payments have so far failed, largely due to lack of carrier support. Acquiring Square would tackle the market from a different perspective but also potentially give Google a local footprint which could be used to re-launch Google Wallet in future.
Microsoft has made one big acquisition recently, in the form of Nokia’s devices business, but it’s clear Satya Nadella thinks less of that business than Steve Ballmer did (and may well have opposed the acquisition at the time). Other larger acquisitions in the past have included Danger, aQuantive, Skype and Visio. But Microsoft is in transition, both culturally and strategically, and it’s not yet clear what the new focus areas for acquisitions might be. However, there are a few areas where Microsoft could use some help.
I’m not going to focus on the wisdom or otherwise of acquiring Nokia’s devices business, but where I think the board made its biggest mistake was not acquiring the Here location and mapping business from Nokia when it bought the mobile phone arm. There are only three meaningful mapping businesses in the world today, and they’re owned by Google, Apple and Nokia. Only two of these companies own major computing platforms, and the third major computing platform company is conspicuous by its absence. Having licensed maps content from Here for several years for use in Windows Phone, and since Nokia devices have used it for much longer, it was perfectly logical for Microsoft to acquire this business. But the board balked at the time and so Microsoft is left licensing one of the core elements of its platforms instead of owning it outright. It could still fix this.
Along similar lines, Foursquare has begun providing PoI data to Microsoft for use in Bing Maps and Cortana but, as with Apple’s relationship with Yelp, there’s a lack of control and ownership. Unfortunately, Here’s mapping data suffers from the same PoI weakness as Apple’s Maps product, especially in the US, and Foursquare would be helpful both in filling gaps and as a foundation for building a much better, more comprehensive database. Given Microsoft’s existing relationship with Foursquare both as a licensee and an investor, an acquisition would be straightforward and a good fit.
Everpix assets or Picturelife
One of the main selling points on Microsoft’s Lumia devices is the cameras, and yet neither Nokia nor Microsoft has ever provided a great way to store, manage and share these pictures. OneDrive is a storage option which should be increasingly integrated into the process of capturing and storing photos, but it suffers from the same fundamental limitations as other storage services: once you put pictures in, it’s almost impossible to find, manage and organize the pictures afterwards without heavy manual intervention. Everpix, before its demise, was one of a handful of services which promised to help with this task, and I always thought Nokia should have snapped it up. Picturelife is a similar service, though not as good, and there are others out there with similar capabilities. Such an acquisition could help set Microsoft’s photo management capabilities apart and would be a great strategic fit with the Lumia devices’ emphasis on photography.
Amazon has obviously just announced a major acquisition in the form of Twitch, and perhaps its appetite for other big purchases might be limited at present. But as I’ve written elsewhere, there are several possible motivations for the Twitch acquisition, among them an extension into new categories within Media and a pursuit of the broader advertising opportunity. There are a number of other acquisitions which might fit into this strategy, as well as Amazon’s broader e-commerce ambitions.
Hulu has been on the block and then off again, and at present is theoretically not for sale. But it would be a great complement to Amazon’s existing position in digital video, which is mostly focused on catalog content rather than new shows. Hulu is the only service that brings fresh content from several of the biggest US broadcasters on both an ad-funded and subscription basis, and both models are a good fit with Amazon’s new approach to media. Video advertising is an important area of expansion for Amazon and subscription content services are a business model Amazon appears to be pursuing too. It would also make Amazon a stronger competitor to Netflix, which currently dominates the US video streaming business.
Pandora is by far the top online music service by usage in the US, second only to Facebook’s apps among all age groups in the ComScore data by usage, and in the top five by unique users, with only Facebook and Google products ahead of it. And yet it’s perennially unprofitable, because of the high content costs. With revenues and costs under a billion dollars a year, Pandora is the kind of business Amazon could swallow relatively easily, while turning it into an important part of its growing digital media offerings. And it would do for Amazon what a Spotify acquisition would do for Google: immediately vault it from an also-ran proposition to a market leader in digital music, at least in the US, which is still by far Amazon’s most important market.
Etsy or Shopify
Amazon dominates the traditional e-commerce space in the US and certain other markets, but there’s a lot more to online buying than traditional retail. Etsy and Shopify are two companies which target adjacent spaces in a way that would be a good complement to Amazon’s current business. The obvious risk here is these companies have sprung up in part as an alternative to Amazon, and their users may not be all that happy about an Amazon acquisition. But either would help Amazon to expand into new areas within e-commerce (and m-commerce).
26 thoughts on “Who Apple, Google and Microsoft Should Acquire Next”
I think all four, plus maybe Facebook and Netflix, should form a consortium and either purchase Comcast and sell the non-ISP side, or build a rival wired internet service to head off Comcast’s burgeoning ISP monopoly. Then, they should let the consortium ISP run with an independent board as a self-sustainining unit under the directive that it provide pricing discipline in the ISP business, i.e. prevent any ISP provider from shaking down the consortium members by threatening their customers’ internet access.
Right on, brother, right on.
More likely we will get an ATT like ISP monopoly. And the government will bust it up. Here’s a question: How do we turn industries into utilities? Not nationalizing. But democratizing services.
Regulation/government intervention. But it ain’t gonna happen in the US. America is actually more like 50 small countries, and within each of those 50 small countries a bunch of regional governments. It’s a mess, all built on individualism. America can’t even implement things like the metric system, a single voting system, universal healthcare, and so on, on a national level.
The FCC might approve if it comes with a consent decree that guarantees true net neutrality in perpetuum.
Great suggestions. Another way Bose is like Apple—you either love them or you hate them. Bose has a sound that draws intense debate among audio aficionados. There may be other brands that offer arguably better quality, but in terms of buying brand recognition, they are hard to beat. Bang-Olufsen might be a good pick, too, with a similar visual appeal.
As for Yelp, they should have bought them yesterday!
I see your B&O and I raise you Bowers & Wilkins. Why settle for the SECOND or THIRD most over-designed and over-priced audio company when you can have the big daddy?
Apple will pick up IBM for loose change. It’s already relegated it to app developer.
Love the last line. but I think IBM is much bigger than you think. Give the iOS/IBM deal a year, then they will expand it to Mac desktops… THEN, perhaps I;ll be convinced they want to acquire. but right now, Apple shows no signs they want to get into big business and compete with Microsoft.
Yah, it was a flip remark. I had nothing better to offer.
So you don’t give any weight to the word that Beats was bought for $3B to have Jimmy and the good Dr Dre on TC’s negotiating team?
I think it was about several things, not just one. Iovine was part, Beats Music was part, and headphones was part.
I’m in this camp. The brand cachet has peaked, and as for technology, they could have bought any number of lesser-known audio companies (Boston Accoustics, Technic, Klipsch, Gröde, Sennheiser, etc etc etc. Even Mackintosh, heh.) for less money.
Jan, it seems like you have argued yourself out of the Apple picks in the very same paragraph they’ve been suggested. 🙂
As far as Yelp – how could Apple ever justify the cost of $5B to $7B. Does a marginally better maps app sell more phones and iPads? Hard to see it and that’s ignoring the very North American-ness and NY/LA/SF-ness of Yelp.
I suspect that Apple’s points-of-interest data is going to get a lot more precise over the next couple of years anyway (iBeacons), and the Maps app is going to benefit from integration with Yelp and others through the Extensibility framework coming in iOS 8. No acquisition necessary.
It’s a thought experiment – I’m not convinced any of these will actually happen, especially the Apple ones. But it’s a useful way of thinking about where these companies are weak and how they might get stronger in those areas. Not worth taking too seriously! Having said that…
Broadcom: likely too late. Bose, not necessary or particularly likely, but would be a good complement to Beats. Yelp, I still believe in. Yes, it’s about selling more iPhones/iPads etc., but it’s also about promoting the Apple ecosystem rather than the Google one, and as long as Google Maps is better on iPhones and iPads than Apple Maps, that’s a problem. POI information is terribly difficult to obtain, and Yelp is the only major company out there building this database aside from Google and Here. iBeacons doesn’t really help, especially while they’re still so sparsely deployed – this isn’t a precision location problem but a dataset problem (i.e. it’s not that it doesn’t know exactly where the nearest Subway restaurant is, it’s that it’s not even aware of it). The problem is also less about access to Yelp data (which it can easily license) than it is about taking it to the next level, which they can’t do while working at arm’s length. I agree, the price is steep, but sometimes you need a shortcut to where you’re going, and sometimes you have to pay a lot for it.
If Apple or MS bought Yelp, it would become a product that only Apple or MS users used, thus negating its benefit. The good thing about Yelp it that it is universal and unbaised (theoretically). I got to Yelp to find out what everyone is saying about a business, not what only Apple iPhone users think of it.
Apple should buy Nintendo. It would be an amazing way to differentiate their products. Only iOS has all the Nintendo games you know and love.
I think Amazon should buy Dropbox. Such a good fit. Would give Amazon a consumer brand for s3 warehouse data services which they are half trying with Prime accounts. Dropbox would give Amazon a ready made install base to compete against Google drive pricing.
Noooooooo……The temptation to google it could be overwhelming.
Apple should buy Ford Motor Co.
Adding Apple’s design sensibilities to a controlling position in on-board technology might yield amazing ROI and growth elsewhere.
Clean it up. Move it out of Michigan. Pay down debt and unfunded pensions. Then spin it off!
Why Ford, why not Chrysler or GM? Ford was the most solvent of the big three during the last crash. They are also still family owned and I dont beliueve they’d be interested in abdicating that for any amount of money.
The Ford Family owned 2% of the company, although a greater share of the votes. I’m sure they’d be delighted to have Ford owned by Apple and they could probably preserve their position in the company through some Preferred stock arrangement.
I think Ford would be the best auto company to be owned by a tech company — although Ford has aligned with Microsoft. Ford seems the most sensitive of the domestic auto manufacturers to issues of design and with the legacy of federal government involvement with the other two, they become less attractive as the Feds would almost certainly get involved with management and capital allocations.
Square would be a much smarter buy for Apple if you ask me. With Apple’s renwed focuson on the SOHO sector and OS X Server, it would make plenty of sense for them to offer the last peice of the puzzle for small business owners. Actually, there’s also the back office.. they should pcik up Quicken while they’re at it (and merge it with FileMaker perhaps).
In addition to market forces that were external to Broadcom, my understanding is that their cellular baseband just wasn’t a good product, and I don’t think the morale in the team was high. Apple is hiring baseband engineers, and can get the best from Broadcom and elsewhere without buying a poor product. I do not think that buying Broadcom’s baseband was ever a good idea.
A couple of comments… First of all Bose is not for sale nor will it probably ever be for sale unless it goes broke. Dr. Bose willed the majority of the Bose Corporation shares to MIT. They are non voting shares and cannot be sold. It’s a private company and it’s pretty much locked unless MIT just gives it away for free. Doubtful. Second someone made a comment that Apple should buy Ford. Once again the Ford family would never allow the company that Henry built to be sold. They might own a small amount of the total shares, but they have majority voting control. Listen to what the Ford family says about the company and you’ll figure out it’s not for sale. It’s just one of those things called pride that we don’t see much anymore in the USA these days. Very few companies still put pride in front of shareholder value, but Ford and Bose are two good examples of this along with John Deere and Cat.
I think Google should buy Newgrounds