Is Apple on a new buying spree?
Tech giant Apple Inc (NASDAQ: AAPL) has acquired its fourth start-up of the year, signalling that it could be about to return to the frenetic pace set in 2019, despite an impending global recession caused by Covid-19.
After a near eight-week silence following the January acquisition of Xnor.ai, Apple has confirmed the purchase of three more companies only weeks apart.
The year started at a what Apple would likely consider a pedestrian pace, purchasing Seattle-based start-up Xnor.ai in January for around US$200 million. Xnor.ai specialises in AI on the edge; low power and edge capable ML and image recognition tools.
Then at the end of March – after a no-doubt Covid-19 induced period of silence as the firm closed production and cancelled events – Dark Sky confirmed it had been acquired by Apple for an undisclosed sum.
The “exciting news”, explained there would be no changes to Dark Sky for iOS “at this time”, but that the Android and Wear OS App will no longer be available for download.
Website forecasts and embed services will end on July 2020 and its API, which is no longer accepting new customers, will be suspended from the end of 2021.
The next confirmed purchase, in the first days of April, was for an AI improvement originally designed to aid online shopping, its the potential applications are boundless. Irish start-up Voysis developed a “complete AI voice platform” and, although its website is now offline, its LinkedIn page states: “We believe voice will soon be the first point of contact between 'man' and machine.”
Almost instantly came reports that another deal was in the pipeline: the rumoured $100 million purchase of VR video streaming service NextVR.
With a focus on sports and entertainment, NextVR has previously partnered with the NFL to stream games through PlayStation and Microsoft headsets.
A buyer’s market?
While it may not disclose what it pays, Apple is far from shy about its acquisition strategy. Last year Tim Cook said activity averaged a new purchase “every two to three weeks”.
Buying sprees aren’t uncommon, either.
In 2019, a spate of 14 acquisitions within six months included SilLabs, the AI software developer with software suitable for consumer handsets, and PullString, a start-up specialising in voice apps.
That April, Bloomberg reported that the position of head of M&A – held by Adrian Perica – had been added to the executive leadership rollcall on Apple’s website.
However, times have changed in the last few months.
Although one of the largest companies in the world, and not one to follow the pack, few others are confident enough to spend huge amounts of cash right now.
Apple’s manufacturing, supply chain and Asian retail stores were all hit early in the Covid-19 crisis and store closures followed on other continents, meaning it is now in its fourth month of operations under various economic and social lockdowns.
As a result, the September 2020 launch of Apple’s 5G iPhone could be pushed back “by months”, although the launch of the iPhone SE is still on track for this month in select markets, including Japan and the US.
The iPhone SE is Apple’s first low-cost smartphone in four years, designed “for the pandemic era” and retails at $399.
Apple issued a revenue warning as early as February and, although it set the tone for what the rest of 2020 might bring for the global economy, it didn’t account for the disruption that would later occur elsewhere in the world.
The statement read: “Outside of China, customer demand across our product and service categories has been strong to date and in line with our expectations.”
A full profit warning in such uncertain times is seen as risky move. The last, issued in 2019, followed a particularly bad close to 2018 and saw revenue outlook cut by $9 billion. The decision wiped 7.45% of stocks.
At the time of writing, Apple was trading at $266.66, up from a 12-month low of $224.37 on 23 March.
What does it mean?
As with everything Apple does, there is method in the apparent madness.
Through Dark Sky hyperlocal weather forecasting is likely to become standard across all Apple devices; the Voysis deal is largely reported as an acquired boost to Siri’s capabilities as an assistant, navigator and personal shopper, no doubt with advertising potential; and Apple has already said its VR headsets are due for launch in 2022, however, that was in a pre-Covid-19 world.
March also saw a leak revealing Apple is to shift from Intel to ARM processors after 20 years; confirmation that future developments won’t be confined to handsets and tablets.
In addition to AI and voice apps, last year’s purchases brought new machine learning, API development and music distribution capabilities to the fold. With weather, entertainment and shopping now added to the list, Apple’s next generation of devices could once again change the entire market.