Apple's Acquisitions in 2018 Play on Some Familiar Themes

After tax reform paved the way for Apple Inc. (AAPL) to repatriate more than $200 billion in offshore cash post-tax, there was speculation that the tech titan would use the money to pay for a giant acquisition or two.

But thus far, Apple's 2018 M&A activity has covered more familiar ground: The company has made a string of sub-$1 billion deals to acquire technology, product assets and talent that it can leverage to strengthen its existing R&D work.

Two of these deals -- the purchases of digital magazine subscription service Texture and music-discovery app Shazam -- highlight how much Apple cares right now about further growing its content services businesses. Two others -- a deal to acquire smart glasses lens maker Akonia Holographics and more recently one to purchase assets from long-time power management chip supplier Dialog Semiconductor -- drive home how much Apple views chip and component engineering as a core competitive strength.

Texture, which was acquired in March for an undisclosed sum, will reportedly be used to help launch a new subscription offering that's integrated with the Apple News platform. There was also a report that Apple has been in talks with major newspapers to make their content available via Texture, which for now provides access to over 200 magazines for $10 per month.

Meanwhile, it's not hard to see how Shazam's platform and technology, could be used to strengthen Apple Music, which now has over 50 million paid subscribers, as well as act as a customer-acquisition channel for the service. The deal was announced last December, but didn't close until September. Shazam claims over 120 million active users and has over 200 patents -- including ones related to its popular song-recognition technology, which can now be added to Apple Music if Apple wishes. The platform already integrates with Apple Music, Spotify (SPOT) and other platforms to let users listen to a full track of a discovered song.

In addition, Shazam's listening data and tools for discovering what a user's friends and favorite artists are listening to could bolster Apple Music's discovery features. Spotify, which had 83 million paid subs as of June, has long possessed superb music discovery tools.

On Monday, it was reported that Apple had bought Asaii, a startup developing music analytics tools for artists and labels. However, TechCrunch later reported that Apple had merely hired Asaii's founders, while adding it isn't clear what the founders will be working on. Analytics services for artists and labels are another field in which Spotify has made substantial investments to date.

Apple's deal for Akonia Holographics, which is far from the first purchase it has made with potential implications for its augmented reality efforts, comes amid a slew of reports indicating that Apple is working on an AR headset. In April, CNET reported that Apple aims to launch a combined AR and VR headset in 2020 that would "connect to a dedicated box using a high-speed, short-range wireless technology."

Notably, CNET also reported that Apple wants the headset to feature a resolution of 8K per eye -- easily above that of any consumer AR or VR headset currently available. Tim Cook has suggested in the past that the displays used by current AR headsets aren't good enough to deliver a "quality experience." Akonia, which has claimed its display tech enables "thin, transparent smart glass lenses that display vibrant, full-color, wide field-of-view images," could help Apple push the envelope in terms of what a mass-market AR and potentially VR display can deliver.

The Dialog deal is a complicated one. Apple will be paying $300 million to Dialog to obtain patents and other assets, as well as to license power management technology that Dialog has developed. It will also give another $300 million as a prepayment for Dialog products that will ship over the next three years.

More than 300 Dialog engineers and other employees will be joining Apple. In the near-term, Dialog, whose shares tumbled in 2017 on fears that Apple will stop using Dialog's power management chips PMICs in favor of its own, says it has landed "a broad range of new contracts from Apple for the development and supply of power management, audio subsystem, charging and other mixed-signal integrated circuits," for which revenue will be recorded between 2019 and 2021.

Nonetheless, the deal with Apple does clearly position Apple to use internally-developed PMICs within iPhones and other hardware over the long run. Among other things, Apple's current chip R&D work encompasses mobile system-on-chips SoCs, CPU and GPU cores, AI and image co-processors, fingerprint sensors, Bluetooth chips and display timing controller chips.

One has to assume that Apple believes acquiring PMIC technology and engineering talent from Dialog will aid its efforts to improve battery lives for the iPhone and other devices. iPhones have long delivered competitive battery life in spite of possessing somewhat smaller batteries than many of the high-end Android phones they compete against. The iPhone XS Max's 3,179 mAh battery, for example, is more than 9% smaller than the battery inside Samsung's Galaxy S9 Plus, and over 20% smaller than the one inside of the Galaxy Note 9.

During Apple's Feb. 1 earnings call, CFO Luca Maestri indicated that tax reform won't change his company's M&A strategy. "Our thought process around M&A has always been the same, and...it really doesn't change," he insisted. "And the thought process is always to acquire something that allows us to either accelerate our product road maps, filling a gap in our portfolio, [or provides] a new experience to customers."

Although its 2018 M&A activity to date is no guarantee that Apple won't pull the trigger on a larger deal in time, it does arguably suggest that the company's approach to evaluating acquisitions indeed remains unchanged.

Apple is a holding in Jim Cramer's Action Alerts PLUS Charitable Trust Portfolio. Want to be alerted before Cramer buys or sells AAPL? Learn more now.

Editor's note: This article was originally published by The Deal, a sister publication of TheStreet that offers sophisticated insight and analysis on all types of deals, from inception to integration. Click here for a free trial.

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