Google and HTC finally announced the deal that’s been rumored for a while and for which many details leaked yesterday. Google is in the end only acquiring 2000 employees and some non-exclusive intellectual property, for $1.1 billion, an amount over half of HTC’s market cap before the deal was announced. The 2000 are around half the research and design team at HTC (and a fifth of the total workforce), while the other half will remain and work on a streamlined portfolio of first-party HTC hardware including a new flagship already in the works. Google’s blog post about the deal is remarkably vague and unhelpful, and it’s equally remarkable that there’s no SEC filing or press release on Alphabet’s investor relations site about the deal given its magnitude. It’s almost as if Google doesn’t want to talk about the deal or its details, but HTC very much wants to, emphasizing both the financial boon – the money to be paid in cash once the deal closes in early 2018 – and its ongoing commitment to making smartphones and VR devices.
The deal has echoes of Microsoft’s bailout acquisition of Nokia a few years back – HTC is a far less important strategic partner to Google, but this very much feels like Google offering a financial lifeline to the very unprofitable and shrinking HTC in return for some assets it needs. Those assets are IP necessary to make Pixel phones without being sued by HTC or anyone else but also the research and design skills necessary to build those phones exactly to Google’s specifications and needs rather than having to work off HTC’s foundation and platform, originally built for other devices. That optimization and the integration with Android it should enable are going to be critical for Google to squeeze the most out of its hardware efforts, though it also needs to go deeper on the chips side, something it’s been reported to be doing separately.
One of the things I’ve been asked about by reporters over the last 24 hours or so is what effect this will have on other Android OEMs. The simple answer is that it clearly strengthens Google’s first party hardware capabilities, which for now aren’t much of a threat. But it’s not as if those OEMs can do anything about it – Android is the only viable open smartphone platform out there today, and if OEMs aren’t producing top-notch, differentiated hardware, Google’s efforts in the space are far from their only problem. One thing is notable: Android engineering head Dave Burke is apparently in Taipei – which is interesting because Google hardware has been said to run at arm’s length from Android team, like any other OEM, so there’s no real reason why Dave Burke would need to be involved in this transaction, and yet there he is in HTC’s home city as this deal is announced.
From HTC’s perspective, the cash infusion will give it breathing room to continue working on a strategy that can again provide sustainable profits in the long run, presumably with its Vive VR business at its core, given that even a shrunken smartphone team isn’t likely to be profitable at its current (or smaller, Pixel-less) scale. I do wonder why Google didn’t just buy the whole company – at under $2 billion market cap, Google could presumably have paid roughly double what it is and had the whole thing, taking what it needed, including manufacturing capability, VR hardware expertise, and other useful pieces, and shut the rest down. This deal is certainly simpler and less painful from an integration perspective, but I’m still not sure I see a viable future for HTC even with this investment and the attendant changes.
Twitter Hires Sriram Krishnan as Senior Director of Product (Sep 19, 2017)
Spotify and Apple Make Video Content Hires (Sep 6, 2017)
Apple Car Engineers Leave for Electric Mobility Startup Zoox (Aug 30, 2017)
Former GE CEO Jeff Immelt is Front-Runner for Uber CEO Job (Aug 21, 2017)
Twitter Hires a Permanent CFO from Intuit (Jul 11, 2017)
Ex-Apple Engineer Chris Lattner Leaves Tesla After 5 Months (Jun 20, 2017)
Apple Poaches Two Sony TV Execs to Lead Video Programming (Jun 16, 2017)
Apple has hired two executives who previously helped make Breaking Bad and The Crown on behalf of AMC and Netflix respectively as its new heads of video programming globally. Those two pieces of content are powerful examples of the role of original content in boosting video brands – Breaking Bad was a major plank of AMC’s push over recent years to turn itself into more than just a catalog player, and while The Crown isn’t Netflix’s most popular bit of original content, it’s very good and a sign of the kind of big-budget stuff it’s going to be making more of going forward. As such, these are fascinating hires, given that for now at least Apple is on the opposite of that process – commissioning rather than producing original video content. These hires could be a sign that change is coming, given that these two new execs have experience producing and not just commissioning video, but that’s a somewhat unusual model for original content compared with other major players like Netflix, which have still tended to farm out original content rather than lead production internally. It’s possible that they will merely become equivalents of Ted Sarandos at Netflix, using their expertise to commission and oversee outside projects, but they seem somewhat odd hires in that context. All of this, meanwhile, seems much less plausible in a continued narrow focus on video content in Apple Music, and much more as part of a broader push into video ahead of a subscription video service. Two other things worth noting: Apple put out a press release on the hires, something it does very rarely indeed, suggesting it wants to make a fuss out of this. Secondly, these two will report directly to Eddy Cue, which will set up an interesting dynamic with Jimmy Iovine, who has seemed to loom large over all of Apple’s content efforts, but especially in video, and who I’ve speculated before is a bit of a loose cannon in this area. I’m hoping these two coming on board provides some more clarity in who owns original video content at Apple.