This column has been updated from Feb. 17 to note a Financial Times report stating Apple held investment talks with studio Imagine Entertainment that fell through.
It goes without saying that Apple (AAPL) has long had a unique way of doing things, one that eschews a lot of practices -- whether having to do with hardware development, software licensing, acquisitions, employee management or the structure of business units -- that many other tech giants regard as standard operating procedure. Back in 2008, Wired magazine ran a lengthy column entitled "How Apple Got Everything Right By Doing Everything Wrong," and the tremendous iPhone-fueled growth the company has seen since then has done plenty to validate that thesis.
But as global smartphone sales growth slows and PC and tablet sales remain pressured, Apple's one-of-a-kind business philosophy might now be preventing it from tackling big new markets in any significant way.
On Wednesday, Bloomberg, relying on sources who have worked with Apple on its M&A efforts, took a look at the factors that have kept Apple from making large acquisitions, at least save for its $3 billion purchase of high-end headphone maker Beats back in 2014. Apple's "aversion to risk, reluctance to work with external advisers such as investment banks and inexperience in closing and integrating large takeovers" were all said to be impediments.
The news service also pointed out that Apple's historical preference for building products internally rather than acquiring them has been an issue, and that it "dictates terms and tells targets to take it or leave it." That approach often works better with startups with interesting technology and big questions about how they'll monetize it -- Apple has bought quite a few such companies in recent years -- than it does with larger, more established firms.
And on Thursday, the Financial Times reported Apple "has considered a range of acquisitions and targets" in Hollywood, but has failed to strike deals. It adds Tim Cook and other Apple execs recently discussed investing in -- if not fully acquiring -- film/TV studio Imagine Entertainment as part of a deal in which Apple would get to distribute Imagine's content before others, but that talks fizzled out.
Imagine co-chairman Michael Rosenberg replied to the story by saying it's "not accurate," but didn't elaborate.
Over the last year, Apple has been reported to have held takeover talks with media giant Time Warner (TWX) , now set to be acquired by AT&T for $85 billion. It has also reportedly talked with British supercar maker McLaren, and Imagination Technologies, the supplier of the GPU core designs used within Apple's A-series processors.
There has also been speculation (but no firm reports) that Apple could bid for Netflix (NFLX) to further its media ambitions. Tesla Motors (TSLA) , which held talks with Apple's M&A chief back in 2013, is seen as a possibility as well. Netflix and Tesla sport $62 billion and $43 billion valuations, respectively, and would likely demand sizable premiums in any deal.
The fact that Apple is sitting on $230 billion in offshore cash, and that it might soon be able to repatriate this cash at a 10% tax rate if President Trump has his way, has naturally led to increased speculation about a Netflix or Tesla-caliber deal. So has the fact that Tim Cook has repeatedly said Apple is open to making a larger deal.
But as Bloomberg indicates, there seem to be major cultural hangups that affect Apple's willingness to pull the trigger on certain acquisitions, as well as its ability to successfully negotiate and close larger deals. Moreover, when looking at massive potential targets such as a Netflix or Tesla, one also has to consider how well Apple's organizational structure is suited to integrating such companies.
Whereas Alphabet (GOOGL) , Intel (INTC) , Cisco Systems (CSCO) and many other tech firms often set up divisions for their major products and services, Apple tends to favor of creating units based on functions such as hardware engineering, chip engineering, software, Internet services, design and marketing. Not counting Cook, there's no "iPhone chief" or "iPad chief" at Apple.
This approach has served Apple's core product lines quite well, helping it create integrated hardware/software/services experiences and avoiding the turf wars (common at many tech and media giants) that can emerge between product-based divisions. But as analyst Ben Thompson has pointed out, this approach hasn't worked as well for Apple in cloud services, preventing it from quickly launching and improving its services and also creating a relative lack of accountability for them.
If Apple was to buy a Netflix or a Tesla, it would have to avoid its traditional managerial approach and run the company instead as a standalone unit with a certain amount of autonomy, with its management team held accountable for the unit's financial performance. It would also -- particularly in the case of a company like Netflix -- have to provide a lot of support for non-Apple hardware and software platforms. Tim Cook & Co. are doubtlessly aware that pulling this off in a way that still allows Apple to reap major synergies from a deal might not be easy.
Separately, Bloomberg reported on Thursday the challenges that the Apple TV set-top business, which just saw a management shakeup, has faced in its attempts to disrupt the TV industry. Employees lament the incremental approach Apple has taken to hardware and software development, and how one-time plans to fully replace cable boxes, which can require making nice with control-obsessed pay-TV providers, have gone nowhere. Apple's plans to launch an online TV service have similarly fizzled out; the effort was suspended in late 2015 due to stalled licensing talks with TV network owners.
The article also notes that Apple's insistence on reaping strong margins on set-top sales, rather than selling the devices at lower margins and profiting from App Store and other services revenue streams, has been a problem. With a $149 starting price, the fourth-gen Apple TV costs far more than many rival devices from Amazon, Roku and Google. And although bundling a game controller could have turned the Apple TV into a popular casual gaming console, Apple reportedly refused to do so partly due to cost concerns.
Given all the success it has seen over the past two decades in upending big markets, and all the profits that have followed on account of it, it's hard to blame Apple for being a little stuck in its ways. And with the help of its burgeoning services revenue streams, there's still room for the company as it exists right now to deliver a measure of growth.
But if Apple wants to make a bigger splash in some of the multi-billion dollar markets it's clearly eyeing but only has a limited presence in for now, the company might have to rethink how it does business.