Apple’s Uncharacteristic Acquisitions Speak Volumes

Although Apple has nearly as much cash on hand as Cisco Systems, it is not a company known for acquisition-fueled growth. Instead, Apple has grown organically, through its own research-and-development initiatives. Apple has a flat, lean corporate structure and unique corporate culture, both of which militate against acquisitions.

Lately, though, Apple has been going against form. In December, it bought Lala, a digital-music service, for an undisclosed sum. A year earlier, it bought PA Semi, a designer of low-power microchips, for a reported $278 million.

Admittedly, that’s not a blazing pace of acquisitive activity. Still, while some companies are more casual with their acquisition strategies, Apple only pursues such deals as a last resort. When Apple buys a company, you know it’s because the folks in Cupertino felt they had absolutely no chance of building a viable alternative within a reasonable timeframe. You also know that Apple must have genuinely and strongly believed it needed to play in a particular space.

All of which brings us to today’s news, brought initially to light by AllThingsDigital. According to Kara Swisher, Apple will acquire Quattro Wireless, a mobile-advertising company, for approximately $275 million.

Launched in 2006, Quattro had received about $28 million in aggregate venture-capital investment from Highland Capital Partners and GlobeSpan Capital. Based in Waltham, Mass., Quattro was on a revenue run rate of $50 million, according to the Boston Globe. Quattro has about 150 employees, who are expected to remain in Waltham.

The Boston Globe reports that the deal closed before the end of 2009. It says Quattro is expected to notify its partners and customers of the transaction today, though there’s no word on when Apple will make a formal announcement.

In the wake of this deal, many observers will immediately point to the increasingly adversarial relationship between Apple and Google, formerly on friendlier terms, even with cross-pollination at the board level. While that’s an aspect of the story that bears notice, it’s also important to maintain a broader perspective, to resist seeing everything that happens in the industry as a cartoonish cage match between bloodthirsty foes.

Yes, Google recent announced an agreement to buy AdMob for $750 million, outbidding Apple in the process. Now Apple has responded by acquiring Quattro, an AdMob competitor.

However, Apple didn’t bid for AdMob or acquire Quattro because of a vendetta with Google. Apple doesn’t do acquisitions on a whim, and it doesn’t pursue them just to keep a property away from a competitor. Apple pursued both deals for reasons of its own, reasons having far more to do with its own strategic plan than with a preoccupation with Google.

Still, both companies see the same opportunities in mobile advertising. Each company has its own strengths it can leverage. For Google, the predominant player in search advertising, mobile advertising is the next frontier. It developed its Android mobile operating system as a platform for that push. For Apple, mobile advertising is an untapped source of potentially rich revenue in mobile communications and entertainment, realms in which it has established market leadership with its iPhones, iPods, iTunes, and AppStore.

While Apple and Google have intersected in competition, they’ve taken very different paths, with very different motivations and rationales, in reaching this juncture.

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