Apple doesn’t make big acquisitions, but they do make small, important purchases

Every time you hear that Apple is rumored to make a big acquisition of a company like Barnes & Noble or AMD or Sony or Adobe or whatever other huge company, just read this story about all the companies that Apple was rumored to purchase but never did:

For years, Apple has confounded the rest of us by not buying things that it should clearly be buying. Not purchasing other well-known companies is so core to Apple’s strategy that it must have a whole department devoted to non-mergers and un-acquisitions.

Apple does purchases companies and many of them have been key acquisitions for Apple. These acquisitions, however, are rarely big name, and they aren’t the kinds of acquisitions that Wall Street analysts or glib tech columnists predict. These are purchases or smaller companies that have specific skills and talents that can help Apple improve products or create new ones.

But let’s get back to the ridiculousness of many of these takeover rumors: Why would Apple want to buy Sony, a company that wants to be like Apple, but consistently can’t execute or get any of the details right? Sony has become a third-rate Apple wannabee with no direction. Apple buying Sony would be like one of those movies where the attractive, popular jock goes out with an artsy, homely girl as some sort of penance or charity thing or something (not one of those hot artsy, geek ladies).

Apple was once rumored to buy Adobe, markers of Steve Jobs’s most hated product, Flash. That tells you how silly these rumors are. I can only assume that these rumors have two origins:

  • Uninformed tech columnists trolling for pageviews and discussion. These people care more about stirring up trouble than sound analysis, and they seem to have very little understanding of Apple’s historical purchases.
  • Trouble makers on Wall Street looking to drum up the value of the company that Apple is rumored to be purchasing, so that a few wealthy clients can make a bunch of money off of false rumors and hope.

Apple makes small, targeted purchases that help them bring new products on line or bolster existing products. Take a look at a few key acquisitions by Apple:

  • Apple purchased NeXT in 1996. NeXT was Steve Jobs’s old company, and while the software and hardware of NeXT was advanced beyond Mac OS or Windows, NeXT was not a successful company. NeXT’s OS became the foundation of OS X. It took five years for OS X to hit the market, and it wasn’t until late 2001 that OS X was ready for primetime (and this version was still very early and not near the caliber of OS X today).
  • In early 2008 Apple acquired fabless chipmaker PA Semi, which had been working on creating powerful, low power computer chips. PA Semi helped give Apple engineering talent that would help Apple create its own line of powerful and low power chips.
  • Apple purchased streaming music service Lala in late 2009. At the time this purchase was largely assumed to be for engineering talent to help Apple setup its own streaming music service. That may or may not still be in the works, but it seems safe to say that Lala’s engineering expertise and cloud experience will be a big help for Apple with its upcoming iCloud efforts. I believe what we are seeing with iCloud this Fall is just the beginning of what will become of iCloud.
  • Apple purchased fabless chip maker Intrinsit early in 2010, a company that developed technology to accelerate ARM chips. Apple has used ARM chips in the iPhone since the beginning, but Intrinsity’s engineering helped them create the A4 and A5, which have helped Apple distinguish their products from other ARM licensees (ARM chips power all smartphones and modern tablets, but there are different variants of these chips based on ARM’s reference designs). PA Semi and Intrinsity were both smaller fabless firms that have helped give Apple the ability to create ARM-based chips that are unique from what other phone and tablet makers use. Almost all other phone and tablet makers use Nvidia’s Tegra lines, Samsungs Snapdragon lines or Texas Instrument’s OMAP lines of ARM-based processors. Apple’s chips have stripped out everything that Apple has deemed not necessary (and helped save power and space) and have also focused heavily on 3D performance for video games and other applications. While Nvidia is a 3D graphics manufcatuer by trade, Apple’s A5 is about twice as powerful as the Tegra 2 when it comes it 3D performance.
  • Apple purchased personal assistant app Siri in early 2010. Siri is a voice-controlled app that finds stuff on the Internet for users. Users can use natural commands such as, “send a taxi to my house” and Siri will help complete that task. It’s really cool technology that could help take iOS, particularly on the iPhone, to the next level. Siri’s technology is most likely being rolled into iOS and will help Apple create better voice command features (perhaps the biggest weakness of iOS) and help Apple compete better with some of the strengths of Android.

The biggest purchase Apple ever made was NeXT for under $500 million. I severely doubt Apple will be looking to make a huge blockbuster purchase of a strong established brand anytime soon. How do I know? Apple has never done it before, and they have been wildly successful by making small, targeted acquisitions.

Look for Apple to make more purchases of companies like Intrinsity and PA Semi. As Apple goes deeper into producing its own unique processors that fit Apple’s specific needs, they’ll need more engineering talent and R&D. Apple has gained a clear advantage in the mobile processor space by creating chips that do exactly what Apple wants it products to do, rather than building products around what other company’s processors can or cannot do.

Also look for Apple to make more targeted acquisitions of companies and products that will help them build out iCloud and iOS features. These small acquisitions add up and helped Apple deliver better products.

The next company Apple purchases most people will probably never have heard of.