March 22, 2023

DealBook Column: Suggestions for an Apple Shopping List

Timothy D. Cook, right, chief of Apple, with Julius Genachowski, the Federal Communications Commission chairman.Jim Urquhart/ReutersTimothy D. Cook, right, chief of Apple, with Julius Genachowski, the Federal Communications Commission chairman.

Question: What would you do if you had $117 billion?

That’s the challenge facing Tim Cook, Apple’s chief, whose company’s cash hoard keeps growing — by about $1 billion a week.

He could hold onto it. He could increase Apple’s dividend, which he instituted this year for the first time.

Or he could spend it.

Just last week, Mr. Cook acquired AuthenTec, a mobile security company, for $356 million in cash — a price equal to pocket lint for a company with the war chest the size of Apple’s.

The real question is whether Mr. Cook would ever spend Apple’s money on an “elephant” — Wall Street parlance for a huge deal.

Apple denizens often say that the company is not interested in deal making. It has, after all, invented some of today’s most successful consumer products. But that view misunderstands Apple’s history: some of its most important innovations were not invented within Apple; they were purchased from other companies.

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For example, the touch-sensitive gesture technology that made the iPhone and iPad possible was invented and patented by FingerWorks, which Apple acquired in 2005. Siri? Apple bought it in 2010. Even Apple’s current Macintosh operating system was an acquisition of sorts. It is built on the back of NeXT, acquired from Steve Jobs (they got him to return as part of the deal, too) in 1996. (Pixar, Mr. Jobs’s other big success, was an acquisition as well. He bought the company from George Lucas as part of a spinoff from Lucasfilm in 1986.)

A year before Mr. Jobs died, he strongly hinted that Apple would consider a big deal. “We strongly believe that one or more very strategic opportunities may come along, that we are in a unique position to take advantage of because of our strong cash position,” Mr. Jobs said in a call with analysts in 2010.

Having all that money can be daunting, so to help Mr. Cook, here is a potential shopping list — some must-buys and some pie-in-the-sky targets — that he may want to consider:

NUANCE This is the one no-brainer on the list. Nuance, based in Burlington, Mass., provides much of the speech recognition technology behind Apple’s Siri and dictation functions. Right now, Apple has merely licensed it and integrated it into both its mobile devices like iPhones and iPads as well as its new Macintosh operating system. Most users think it is Apple technology, but those services wouldn’t work without Nuance.

It should go without saying, but the importance of speech recognition is only going to increase in the future. Nuance has more patents for it and has developed the technology further than just about any firm in the world. At some point, Nuance will be able to hold Apple for ransom. Google and Microsoft are steadily building their own speech recognition technologies and they are catching up quickly. Nuance’s market value is $6.3 billion. Even if Apple paid twice as much, it would be a worthwhile investment.

TWITTER AND PATH Consider this a one-two punch. Apple should buy the social media companies Twitter and Path. Twitter is well known. The 140-character Twitterverse now has more than 140 million active monthly users. It is one of the few, if only, independent social media properties that could allow Apple to build its own social media platform to truly compete against the likes of Facebook and Google.

Twitter’s price tag is just north of $10 billion, and as my colleagues Evelyn M. Rusli and Nick Bilton reported in The New York Times last week, the idea has certainly crossed the minds of Apple executives.

Path is less familiar, but it would be an integral ingredient for Apple’s push into social media. Path is a fast-growing social media company that works on mobile devices only. It has cracked the code on making the mobile experience of sharing with friends enjoyable. Path would probably cost $250 million to $1 billion. If Apple were to stir together Twitter, Path and its own Photo Stream service — and leveraged all the data it has collected about its users over the years (while mindful of privacy issues) — the company would have quite a product that would keep consumers hooked.

RESEARCH IN MOTION Yes, this one may be a head-scratcher, considering that the iPhone seems to have eaten RIM’s BlackBerry for breakfast — and lunch. But with a marke value of $3.7 billion it is a relative bargain and could be had for four weeks’ worth of Apple’s spare cash).

Such a deal would instantly put Apple into the enterprise market, giving it access to corporate and government customers that require RIM’s highly secure servers. Apple could build access into RIM’s network directly into future iPhones and maybe even create an iPhone with BlackBerry’s famous keyboard, which for many of us would create the ultimate smartphone.

RIM’s relationships with corporate and government customers could be leveraged to sell other products like computers and iPads. RIM also owns QNX, a software that is being used in its next-generation BlackBerry devices. More important for Apple, QNX is used as an in-dashboard operating system, and it is already in 20 million cars, like Chryslers and Porsches.

Finally, there are RIM’s patents, said to be worth $1 billion to $4 billion alone, a virtual treasure trove for a company that is locked in brutal patent wars with rivals. Google paid $12.5 billion for Motorola Mobility last year, in part, to secure the company’s patent portfolio.

SQUARE Everyone is talking about the mobile wallet. Square, started by the Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, has created a unique new electronic payment system though iPhones and iPads. The next time you go to a coffee shop, there is a chance you can pay with your iPhone simply by saying your name when you get to the cash register.

Square’s value has crept up to more than $3 billion, which is high for a company that is still losing money. But if Apple could integrate Square into iTunes — which has over 400 million active credit cards on file from around the world — it could become a sensation overnight, pushing out rivals like VeriFone and PayPal.

Yes, the phone company. This might seem the most out-there idea. But it solves many of Apple’s biggest problems.

Such a deal would give Apple its own wireless network, which it could upgrade to become the ultimate high-speed wireless carrier in the country. It could eventually use the network to bypass the cable operators to deliver content directly to the home on multiple devices, including the product that everyone speculates is on its way: a TV device.

With a stock market value of $13.5 billion, Sprint can be purchased for a song. Apple could easily spend four times more than that — say, $50 billion — to build out the Sprint network and turn it into a showcase for the next generation mobile technology. Apple could still offer its devices on other carriers, but its premium product would exist on its own network.

Think about it: Apple service, Apple Stores and simple Apple pricing. That would revolutionize the business. And such an investment would force the other carriers to step up their game, which would only help Apple. Most compelling is the possibility of Apple owning the last mile into everyone’s home (wirelessly) and be able to offer televised content. (I had considered Netflix as a suitable acquisition target, but if Apple had its own telephone company, it could negotiate directly with content providers on a level playing field with cable and satellite operators.)

The total cost for this grocery list, takeover premiums and additional investments included, is about $97 billion, give or take a couple billion. (Let’s put aside the thorny issue of how Apple can use its cash, much of which is abroad, without being taxed). That would leave Mr. Cook with $20 billion in the bank for walking-around money.

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