Calls for Apple to buy Netflix are getting louder. Instead of evaluating whether Apple should buy Netflix, a more valuable question is whether or not Apple actually needs to buy Netflix to accomplish its goals. Upon closer examination, it becomes clear that calls to buy Netflix are misplaced as Apple is chasing after something entirely different in the video streaming space.
Music Streaming Lessons
One way to judge Apple's approach to video streaming is to look at how the company approached music streaming. In 2014, Apple had a growing problem on its hands. A music streaming startup called Spotify had amassed 40 million subscribers by positioning free music as a carrot for signing up to paid music streaming, for which there were 10 million paying subscribers. While Apple was still seeing increasing revenues from its paid music download empire, the company lacked a viable music streaming alternative. iTunes Radio wasn't an answer as it was chained to the paid download model.
With $147 billion of cash on the balance sheet at the end of 2013, Apple could have bought Spotify for $15 billion in 2014. Apple would have not only acquired an entirely new business model for content, but also solved its music streaming service problem overnight. Spotify would have had a difficult time turning down Apple's offer since $15 billion would be overvaluing the firm.
Instead of buying Spotify, Apple bought Beats for $3 billion in 2014. Three years later, many are still not sure what to make of the acquisition. Beats was a headphones company with a questionable balance sheet. The company also had a fledgling music streaming business via its MOG acquisition two years earlier. These items didn't position Beats as a traditional Apple acquisition target. If management wanted quick access to a successful music streaming service, the obvious path forward ran through Spotify, not Beats.
However, Apple wasn't looking to buy just a music streaming service. Instead, Tim Cook and Eddy Cue, Apple SVP of Internet Software and Services, were looking for a long-term vision as to how Apple should approach music content. Beats co-founder Jimmy Iovine was selling that vision. In fact, Iovine had tried to sell that vision to Apple more than a decade earlier as co-founder of Interscope Records. With Spotify gaining power and cracks beginning to appear at the edges of the iTunes empire, Apple decided it was time to buy into Iovine's vision in 2014. Instead of buying Spotify, Apple bought Jimmy Iovine.
Apple relies on a very particular M&A strategy. Management acquires companies in order to fill holes in product strategy. As a result, Apple uses M&A primarily to buy technology and teams of people behind a certain technology. In such a scenario, the product is placed above all else. In recent years, Apple has been an active acquirer, buying 15 to 20 smaller companies every year.
Apple looked at its music strategy and concluded that the product hole involved more than just streaming technology. If that were the case, Spotify would have done a great job at plugging up that hole for Apple. Instead, management saw weakness when it came to talent, ideas, and a broader vision for content. Apple wanted fresh connections and relationships with the music industry - items Spotify lacked. Management was searching for a vision as to how it could strengthen its relationship with Hollywood, push the music industry forward, and strengthen the iOS ecosystem. Jimmy Iovine and the Beats team, including former music industry executives such as Larry Jackson, had the relationships Apple was chasing.
By acquiring Beats, has Apple's streaming music plans worked out? Would Apple have done better by acquiring Spotify? As seen in the following chart, Apple Music has done well when looking at the number of paid subscribers. While some thought the product had little chance of gaining adoption out of the gate, Apple now has more than 20 million paying subscribers after just 17 months in the market. Apple management is likely pleased with that total. The service has obviously benefited from Apple's extensive marketing campaign as well as prominent placement within the iOS platform. The company has unofficially positioned its goal as surpassing 100 million paying subscribers.
When it comes to assessing Spotify's performance, the task becomes more complicated. On the surface, Spotify's paid subscriber growth rate appears to have remained steady following Apple Music's launch. The streaming service last disclosed 40 million paying subscribers. The problem is that Spotify has moved the goal posts when it comes to paid subscribers. The term has lost much of its meaning due to Spotify's heavy usage of promotions and bundling. In addition, Spotify's disclosures have become more sporadic when it comes to paid subscribers. Apple Music's disclosures have remained consistent to date.
There are also questions regarding Spotify's business model and sustainability. It's not clear when or how those questions will be answered. This has placed a shroud of mystery over the music streaming space.
In the meantime, Apple appears to be running fast with Apple Music as it positions "Planet of the Apps" and "CarPool Karaoke: The Series" as the first two original video shows for its streaming service. Apple's efforts with Apple Music don't appear to have been jeopardized by passing over Spotify as an acquisition target. It remains unclear if Spotify will serve as a ceiling to Apple Music's user growth. This is why Spotify's financial well-being is such a crucial topic to consider when thinking about Apple's long-term strategy to play in the music streaming space via Jimmy Iovine.
Why Acquire Netflix?
When it comes to the world of video streaming, Netflix is in an even stronger position than Spotify. With close to 90 million paying subscribers, Netflix has seen an incredible amount of success in getting people to pay for video content.
The crux of the argument for why Apple should buy Netflix centers around revenue growth. However, a few other reasons are often cited.
- Revenue growth. By owning Netflix, Apple management would be well on its way to reaching their goal of doubling the Services business in four years. A $12 billion per year stream of subscription revenue (100 million Netflix customers paying $10 per month) is approximately 40 percent of Apple's annual Services revenue.
- A different business model. Subscription revenue would help smooth the lumpiness found with Apple hardware sales and could eventually help the company make a push into a more encompassing subscription/service business model.
- Original content. Netflix would give Apple a shot in the arm when it comes to original content programming. Instead of spending years to build something from scratch, Apple would quickly be in a position of producing enough original video content to match ESPN.
Netflix Acquisition Lacks Rationale
Upon closer examination, calls that Apple should buy Netflix are misplaced as they do not take into account how Apple actually views the world. Many of the arguments assume Apple's current hardware-centric revenue model is in trouble. In addition, each of the three primary reasons cited for why Apple should buy Netflix contain significant gaps in logic and rationale.
- Revenue. Apple doesn't, and shouldn't, use M&A to directly acquire revenue streams. Apple didn't buy Beats for its revenue-generating headphone business. Instead, Apple bought Jimmy Iovine's music vision. A headphones business just happened to be attached to that vision. If M&A is used as a tool to grow revenue, Apple's effort to place the product above everything else is put into jeopardy. This logic explains why Apple doesn't acquire the large companies often paraded in the press as possible acquisition targets.
- A different business model. Apple has already shown the willingness to embrace change when it comes to selling product. This is a company that pivoted from a very successful paid music download model for iTunes to paid subscriptions with Apple Music. With more than 20 million paying subscribers for Apple Music after only 17 months, the streaming service is already 20 percent the size of Netflix - and this is with little to no video content.
- Original content. There is no evidence to suggest Apple wants to own large portfolios of video content. Instead, the company is still focused on being a content distributor with its iOS platform. In addition, rather than buying legacy content portfolios (Time Warner, Viacom, Disney, etc.) or original content initiatives found at tech companies masquerading as media companies (Netflix, Amazon), Apple is more interested in buying great ideas. This was very much on display with Apple's approach to music streaming.
Apple's Video Strategy
In essence, Netflix is like Spotify. Apple could acquire Netflix and instantly become the leader in paid video streaming. However, there is evidence that Apple is instead looking for something different. Apple is searching for another "Jimmy Iovine," new connections and relationships with Hollywood.
Apple's content goals have a better chance of being reached by working with smaller Hollywood production companies than by acquiring Netflix. This explains Apple's reported interest in Imagine Entertainment. According to The Financial Times, Tim Cook and Eddy Cue discussed a range of possibilities with Imagine Entertainment, founded by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, including a possible acquisition. The takeaway from those talks doesn't revolve around Apple getting its hands on an existing content portfolio. Rather it focuses on bringing people on board to come up with new ideas.
Another scenario that would likely interest Apple would be sitting down with a well-known entertainer and producer, such as Oprah, to discuss the possibility of working together on a few big ideas. Such an opportunity would let Apple stand out from the pack in the video streaming space instead of competing head-to-head with Netflix or Amazon Video. Such actions may seem trivial compared to Netflix doing 1,000 hours of original content programming. However, Apple would be looking to compete on different terms.
The preceding Apple strategy is the cornerstone of my Apple Studios theory. Apple would build a Hollywood arm tasked with coming up with original video (and music) content. Instead of viewing this as a Netflix 2.0, Apple Studios would be more of an incubator for trying out new entertainment ideas. Apple Studios would sit uniquely within Apple's organizational structure in order to have the independency needed to prosper yet not be completely cut out of Apple.
Eddy Cue and Jimmy Iovine like to say they are positioning Apple Music to be all about culture. When Apple says "culture," the company is actually referring to relevancy. Apple wants to remain relevant in the entertainment space. They want people to talk about what is going on in Apple Music. Eddy Cue recently compared Apple Music to MTV. While the juxtaposition may not be the most flattering thing for Apple Music these days considering MTV's weakened influence, Cue likely meant the MTV of yesterday. The cable channel was a cultural force for decades.
Apple is more interested in acquiring select ideas that have the potential to extend beyond just video or music content than it is in using a portion of its $230 billion of cash to buy huge content libraries. Apple held a monopoly on music mindshare during much of the late 2000s and early 2010s with iTunes. Management wants that mindshare back with Apple Music. This explains Apple's unusual arrangements with artists like Drake, Frank Ocean, and Chance the Rapper. Apple is showing us their blueprint for regaining relevancy.
This drive for relevancy also explains Apple's decision behind "Planet of the Apps." A show about apps doesn't seem to have much in common with a streaming music service. However, Apple Music has never been just about music, but rather it is about capturing relevancy. While the premise behind Planet of the Apps is similar to Shark Tank and The Voice, the integration with iOS is new and different. Planet of the Apps will include video content via an iOS app as well as broader iOS integration by having the apps that appear on the show featured prominently in the App Store. We are still firmly living in an app world. Apple thinks Planet of the Apps can get people talking - the same goal the company has for the broader Apple Music initiative.
Apple never had iTunes-like mindshare in the video space. That title went to a collection of traditional broadcast and cable companies. Looking ahead, Apple isn't trying to be like HBO, Showtime, Netflix, or Amazon Video by owning large swaths of content. Instead of buying Spotify, Apple bought Jimmy Iovine's vision for regaining relevancy in music. Apple is now looking to translate Jimmy Iovine's music vision around relationships, ideas, and mindshare into a broader strategy for video. The strategy doesn't require owning Netflix.
Receive my analysis and perspective on Apple throughout the week via exclusive daily emails (2-3 stories a day, 10-12 stories a week). To sign up, visit the membership page.