Apple could buy the mobile phone industry

The second quarter ends in less than two weeks. When it does, I expect Apple will have over $70 billion in Cash, Cash Equivalents, Short-term marketable securities and long-term Marketable Securities. That figure has been growing predictably.

Also predictable has been the decline in value of Apple’s mobile phone competitors. Most spectacularly Nokia and RIM. The enterprise values of the public companies selling 75% of all phones sold world-wide are as follows:

  • Nokia $22.6b
  • RIM $13.8b
  • HTC $25.4b
  • Motorola Mobility $4.2b

The values of the profitable phone-making subsidiaries are a bit more difficult to estimate but we can use multiples of trailing operating profits. I generously use the multiple applied to HTC (14).

  • Sony Ericsson $0.21b x 14 = $3.0b
  • Samsung $3.76b x 14 = $53b

That leaves valuing LG’s phone business which has not been profitable in the last four quarters. I assume a nominal value of $10b. These data points are shown in the following chart:

Given the current valuations, it would not be difficult for Apple to acquire every phone vendor except for Samsung with cash alone.

The more remarkable thing is that as market values of phone vendors continue to decline, Apple’s cash will continue to grow dramatically. Indeed, a time may soon come when Apple’s cash will be worth more than the entire phone industry.

  • Peter

    Could Apple buy "the music industry" ? If yes, why don't they ? (At least the big companies.) Just imagine: no more contract talks about streaming etc

    • asymco

      Yes, they could have bought it long ago. The music industry is actually currently of negative net worth. Some of it has been "repossessed" by creditors already.

      But that's only of theoretical interest. Any industry consolidation is subject to regulatory oversight and such a move would be prohibited. This prohibition artificially prolongs the industry life beyond its natural death.

      • simon

        That's something to be looked closer in the future. With their financial success and their tendency to be skeptical of relying on others (which is why the iOS 5 Twitter integration was such a big surprise) Apple will be scrutinized closely by the regulators and it might stop Apple from pursuing their usual integration business model in some areas.

      • Guest

        It has happened somewhat already, in that Apple has effectively displaced the principal use case of a record company: to distribute recordings of music. I don't think they realize it yet, but they are in a position to begin to develop talent as well. I don't think the time is that far off when they will announce that they have "signed" an artist to release only on iTunes. Or market movies only available through their download, rent and streaming.

        Will it beg a response from Amazon and Microsoft and Google to develop their own hardware/media store interplay as a way of capturing consumers?

    • Yowsers

      It's much cheaper licensing that content than buying the companies and then having to commit significant resources to manage it all. It could be a resource-sucking distraction for them. It's better to let that be someone else's headache. And as contentious as contract and licensing discussions seem to be, AAPL seems to have found a way to make them work (evidenced by signatures on contracts at the end of the day.)

      It also doesn't square with AAPL's stated M.O., which is they'll step in with a product where they see they can do something unique. They've done that in their own way with the iPod, iTunes and now Match. They're not trying to become yet another label.

    • famousringo

      I'd say Apple already controls the music industry. It's just a matter of time.

      As the big labels wither and die under their ancient model, more and more musicians are going to go independent. How do you suppose these independent recording artists are going to get their music to market? Cut out the publisher and go straight to the retailer that's so easy to deal with, even amateurs can make money by putting a novelty single up on Youtube with an iTunes link to buy.

      • asymco

        If you follow the money in the music industry you see that it leads to a dead end. There isn't any. The music companies are not going concerns and have not been investment grade for over a decade. The've been bought and sold by debt holders, conglomerates, vain corporations and private equity funds. They are distressed assets. Their influence is far greater than their value, which is arguably not above zero.

    • Hamranhansenhansen

      Apple already "owns" the music industry by buying music, not companies. And there is no need to buy the cow when the milk is cheap. Music is cheap.

  • Alexmansur

    Hello Horace,
    Great insight. Just one question.
    Are you comparing all Apple business with the sole mobile business of Samsung? If yes, aren´t they different things?

    • asymco

      Apple's Enterprise value ($236b) is far greater than the figure being compared with competitor enterprise values. I'm comparing Apple's "cash" with the enterprise value of its (phone) competitors. It answers the question of what Apple could (in theory) buy without having to raise money.

      • NikolausHeger

        If it were for sale, that is… Samsung's mobile phone business at the very least surely isn't. Publicly traded companies can be bought, parts of conglomerates can't…

        I think it would be funny if Apple bought Nokia and sort of used it to own the low end of the market, making Android and even Windows Phone devices. But, they won't – they have other things to do, and only one Steve Jobs.

      • asymco

        Parts of companies are often bought and sold. Sony's phone business was "sold" to Ericsson.

  • Luis Masanti

    This is really a wonderfull fun thinking, as another poster said.

    Taking into account past buyouts by Apple, we should ask: Are there any value, be it technological or people?
    Why will Apple buy any falling business? Apple usually leave them to Microsoft!

    • hahaha….funny… 🙂

  • Of couse, Apple need not buy the industry to take advantage of cheap valuations. The bigger issue is cultural. Apple has a poor record of playing well with others, so it's unlikely a partnering strategy is any more feasible than overcoming the regulatory opposition to outright acquisition.

    It might be interesting to look at the valuation of mid-tier carriers. Could this be a way for Apple to buy spectrum and launch it's own service?

    • asymco

      The time when Apple's value eclipses that of all carriers put together (globally) is still not on the horizon. Of course that's an even less likely scenario than this, even if it were arithmetically possible.

      It's pointless to buy a handful of operators. All it would do is limit their market for devices to those operators.

  • I don't recall Apple having a history of making large acquisitions, other than NeXT, Quattro and maybe a few others in the few hundred million range. It seems unlike them to buy a large ($ billions) competitor and integrate them into their existing business.

    • huxley

      Horace isn't saying they should or would but rather that Apple COULD buy most of the industry with its cash alone.

  • Shock Me

    Apple would be better of buying carriers than buying other manufacturers.

    • asymco

      The idea of buying carriers keeps coming up but it's not a good idea. If Apple buys a distributor then no other distributor will work with them because they would be in competition. In some cases that's not relevant, for example in retail where Apple decided ten years ago to compete with its retail channel. At the time that channel was largely ineffective and Apple felt they could re-create it in their image. Ten years later they are still building out the channel, finding international expansion still difficult.

      However, the operator channel is far more influential in distributing phones (but not influential in any of the other Apple products.) By telling other operators that Apple will compete with them, they will likely withdraw all support for the iPhone. And this would happen globally even if Apple buys a single operator in a single country.

      So it's futile to try to buy your distribution unless you can completely replace it. That's just not feasible given the global value of operators.

      • sve

        Maybe not buying carriers because you can't replace them all. But how about buying a satellite TV programming distribution arm? They could distribute purchased media (primarily video) to everyone with a satellite dish.

      • asymco

        The data transmission business will likely commoditize (as the voice business did) so it's a tough thing to leverage.

    • NikolausHeger

      Why? Everyone's ripping their phones out of their hands, they have all the carrier support and demand they could possibly want. Apple getting into the carrier business would make as much sense as them getting in the washing machine business, or the car business, or any other totally unrelated business.

      To make a new global Apple network they'd have to buy carriers everywhere and that would cost way more than Apple's cash… an order of magnitude, probably.

  • James Katt

    Apple does not buy the music industry because it is HIGHLY FOCUSED. And it is highly successful at being highly focused.

    Also, Apple only buys companies that will improve or maintain its profits. Apple, after all, is a MONEY MAKING BEAST of a company. The music industry will ONLY DRAG Apple down in profits.

  • Nicu

    Great number game !

    You should probably use the actualized RIMM market cap (-22% as of now).

    • asymco

      I had assumed a 15% discount to closing before earnings.

      • Nicu

        Have you also got some puts if you [knew you] were so spot on ?

      • asymco

        I wrote this after the stock sold off AH. But to your point, no, I don't trade stocks or options.

      • Nicu

        OK, maybe you did it after hours, and I thought you had a very nice crystal ball. Sorry for the unnecessary comment.

  • sve

    I think RIMM's platform is on fire. They need to jump off of it into the cold Atlantic waters. Maybe they'll hire a new CEO with known platform-jumping abilities? Let me offer a suggestion: RIMM hires away Elop from NOK. This one change would improve two companies!

    • worksafe

      RIM is not worth the hassle on buying. Patents yes, but not the company. Let it die a slow death like Nortel.

  • worksafe

    Apple would be better off buying a Telco than buying another company(s). You have the mobile phones, why not be the carrier as well

  • Chris

    I believe had $81 billion at the end of last quarter. In two weeks, they should have closer to $90 billion.

  • gprovida

    Aside from Justice Department and European competition objections, my sense is Apple does not buy companies for products and market, especially ones on the decline, Apple goes for the talent and I suspect the talent pool is way too mixed to justify an acquisition.

  • worksafe

    I believe that they are going to be shy of 90 billion when you look at the pay out that they will have to make to Nokia plus a few other patent infringements that have been levelled at them in the past few days. This reminds me of Microsoft in the 90's when everyone was suing them.

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  • poke

    Do you think any of these companies could be a realistic acquisition target for Apple? I was thinking about who could buy RIM and it seems to me that any company interested in them would have to dump the existing Blackberry hardware, the OS, the Playbook and most of RIM's talent (including all the CEOs). So any company looking to buy RIM would be looking to buy its customers, its enterprise infrastructure and potentially its distribution channels. Who'd be in a position to take advantage of that? I think Apple would be. Besides HP, they're the only integrated vendor, and they could just switch out Blackberries for iPhones. They could make iMessage compatible with BBM, support RIM's enterprise solution in iOS and just tell everyone that BBOS is end of line and going forward they all need to upgrade to iPhones. (I think most customers would be happy to do so if the iPhone supported all of RIM's existing services.) The question is whether they're worth the price, but the price is only going to keep getting lower.

    • asymco

      None of the things you cite RIM as having (customers, infra, OS, etc.) are irreplaceable, so the question for an acquirer is "build or buy". Buying is seldom cheaper than building when you factor the probability of what you bought collapsing. In other industries, these "assets" are more durable, but in technology they are fragile.

  • Gandhi

    If Apple is going to buy any company, or make a large acquisition, it would be Nuance.

    Other cell phone makers and the music industries are shrinking businesses, no point wasting money on them, they have nothing beneficial to offer Apple.

    If not outright, I suspect Apple will enter in to some kind of exclusivity deal with Nuance like they did with those liquid metal guys last year.

  • N8nNC

    Horace was having fun, using cash vs. competitor-EV to point out Apple's dominance of the phone market. I believe the parity came as much from a decrease in competitor's EV as from an increase in Apple's cash. At no point did I think Horace was advocating Apple purchasing a competitor (for all the reasons pointed out in comments).

    Horace – what do you think about the possibility of Apple using their cash to commandeer the initial supply of LTE-Advanced infrastructure and handset devices/chips to roll out their own true 4G network? I truly believe LTE-Advanced will cause massive disruption of the wireless and cable/tv industries, with Apple benefiting greatly.

    • asymco

      It's just a massive undertaking globally and if you can't do it globally, why bother. Apple has to sell globally because no single country or region is dominant anymore.

      The way to think about networking is like real estate. Ultimately you need to provide these base stations, millions of them. And you need to maintain them and get permits and deal with local authorities who are peculiar in their demands.

  • Blake

    Do you think there is any chance that Apple might buy a carrier? Consider that Apple likes to own the experience end-to-end, and buying a carrier like Sprint and spending a chunk of cash on network upgrades could ensure that Apple devices always have the best connectivity. At a technical level, control over both the wireless technology, the device, and the application could pave the way for better efficiencies in a/v streaming.

    The question would be how to get there from here – how would they avoid disrupting the existing iPhone revenue streams while they made the transition.

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  • Ian

    I like the idea put forward in another article that Apple could roll out US wide wifi for less than the cost of buying a carrier. Wifi is unregulated, it then could replace all the US carriers. It could rinse and repeat the process in all unregulated countries.

    The service could then be a low cost option on your iCloud account.

    • John

      That would be fun. Imagine every airport and shopping mall having Wi-Fi access from Apple!

    • Oscar Vasquez

      This is exactly what I was thinking. Any responses? They could partner with Google, who has at least made steps in this direction.

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  • nak

    "Given the current valuations, it would not be difficult for Apple to acquire every phone vendor except for Samsung with cash alone."

    Fun as it may be to say this, it's completely false. I have enough money to buy a kilo of cocaine from every dealer in my city. But it would risky and most definitely illegal. To say it would "not be difficult" for Apple… is naïve at best.

    • simon

      Of course he's not saying it's actually feasible. It's just a way to show how large Apple's cash reserve is. Just because someone says something like "if you fold newspaper 50 times you can reach the moon" it doesn't mean the person thinks it's doable.

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  • Old man

    It seems to me that if Apple were going to buy ANY of these guys, their cash would be BEST spent buying ONLY Samsung. Why? They would be buying their clone! Samsung's products are the best Android copies out there, and so there would be minimal redesign efforts/ expenses going forward.
    Hey! Just think of all the money Apple could save just in their legal department! That would go a long way towards funding the purchase right there!
    That's why I'd put my money on Samsung.

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  • Rakesh

    Horace, Have you factored in the value of samsung that is a directly due to Apple's spend with them? i.e. Samsung would cost apple less than their market cap as a large percentage of their market cap is driven by revenue from Apple on flash memory etc sales?

    • asymco

      The values I put forward are based only on the phone businesses. In other words, these are not valuations of Samsung as a whole and therefore exclude semiconductors.

      • Rakesh

        Even smarter analysis than I realised then 🙂

  • Mark

    I suppose Apple could also buy the car industry, satellite radio, Kmart, and Applebees. But why would it?

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  • David Henkel-Wallace

    Nokia will be worth it to them when the enterprise value falls to the NPV of Apple's quarterly patent payments. Which, at the rate things are going, might not be that far off.

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  • chandra2

    Working in this hypothetical realm of buying other cell phone companies, what I am worried about is Apple's difficulty in meeting demand. They have been saying that they could have sold more iPhones if they could make more. Given all this, may be it makes sense to use the cash to buy manufacturing capacity outright in Asia. I know they have been doing that for parts.

    If demand is not a problem but the supply is, then it makes sense to spend on the supply

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  • Bubble. Sell our APPL stock before it’s too late. Apple is a one trick pony, more than 60% of its current profits is one product, the iphone.

    • But only a few years ago they didn't have iPhone at all. Every single bit of profit they've made off of it is icing on the cake, as they were doing just fine before it.

      With the iPod touch and the iPad, they'll do just fine after it, too.

      And, of course, if for some reason they lose all income whatsoever, their massive pile of cash will keep them running for a decade. And just how likely is that?

  • Let's face it. Pretty soon apple is going to have to invest in some of these other companies – like when Microsoft invested in apple those years ago – to avoid monopoly status!

    I'm joking. But if it comes down to it, I said it first.

    • TheOtherGeoff

      Again, the history of MS investing in Apple was not about monopoly, but about a flat out stealing of IP relating to QuickTime.

      As for Apple 'having' to invest… because of monopoly status. No. As long as Apple doesn't require carriers to NOT sell other phones, or suppliers to NOT sell to other phone makers (apple just buys all the product up front with petty cash withdrawl's from that 70B, to get volume discounts and firm delivery dates… not the same as denying sales to others), they are not using their monopoly status for evil. MS was forcing Windows to be licensed (a tax) on every Intel PC made (running openStep, Linux, or OS9), and not allowing components (IE) to be removed from the config. That was deemed evil.

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  • I saw an interesting comment over at AppleInsider, where they linked to this article, that someone else made: Steve dies (as we all will), Apple's stock plummets, Apple buys it all back.

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  • peter

    It is going to be an Apple world, no question about that!

    If you cant see that, you severely lack insight…
    IPod, iPad Mac etc.

    I’m not an Apple user, but I’m smart enough to see the writing on the wall!

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  • nick

    Why do we even have such an article when it is purely hypothetical. No, Apple will not ever be allowed to buy the mobile phone industry.

    • asymco

      Because it highlights a contrast in value created and value captured. When you assert that one company can purchase all its competitors with the profits it took from them and when that company was not even participating in the same industry four years ago, it shows how value can completely evaporate from the strong and condense on the weak and just how fragile any hold on the market ends up being. Once you realize that you can then think about whether any hold on the market can be firm. Then you can establish the causes for what passes as leadership in this industry.

  • Well i think Nokia will recover again with the launch of WP7 phones in December, while Apple has fired its cartridges, the iPhone 4S apparently will be the same as iphone 4 and even the ipad has no particular improvements. …
    We Will See …

    • Kris

      December is the worst possible launch time. Xmas market is done buy then and when it is question of Microsoft they will miss that mark. That is irrelevant anyway what they do, because iOS 5, iCloud and Lion will be out soon and suck the air from the competitors. iMesseges and iCloud will also destroy RIM not only because these offerings are free, they are also very advanced and available to all developers (for free).

  • This is an interesting moment in Apple's identity as a company. More than just thinking about Apple's liquid cash versus competitor values, I think the real question is what is Apple going to do with all their cash? Buying a competitor seems to me to be of little value to them.
    But what of buying a service provider? If Apple is about the integrated experience for their users, what if the next step is providing iPhones and iPads straight from hardware/software design to data and broadbrand delivery?
    What is Apple's liquid assets versus a company like say, AT&T ?

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  • kevin

    Apple is not interested in acquiring any of the other mobile handset makers for their business (nor any of the content producers), though they are likely interested in the cellular patent portfolios of some of these competitors. It's been said that Apple was one of the bidders for Palm, and that it has already received approval to bid for Nortel patents. Beyond patents, Apple is more likely to acquire software or hardware technology (or staff) that makes one or more of their devices or development platforms even better. Now with the forthcoming launch of iCloud, that technology space has grown to include back-end cloud technologies.

  • Paul

    Imagine a world with Apple, mismanaged competitors, and *no* Android. It would be hell of a monopoly.

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  • marcelloh

    it's comparing apples to pears.. Apples revenue is not pased on it's cellphones alone. what a bs news this is.

    • asymco

      You mis-read the article. The comparison is not with Apple's sales but with the cash it has available in the bank.

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  • yet another steve

    This is fun because I think so many miss the sheer magnitude of Apple's profits and cash. As if "well the stock has run up so it must be expensive."

    In reality we all know that Apple likes a nice minimalist business model where they suck out the profits without having to control the world. True for music (forget iTunes the money is in devices not content) and mobile (skip feature phones and let the puck come to them.)

    For all of its size and financial gain, the design of Apple's business is even simpler and more beautiful than it's UIs.

  • yet another steve

    And in their big "defeat"… PCs. Small part of the world, dominating profits.

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  • jaylist

    They wouldn't need to . I would expect Apple to buy companies that help them provide premium differentiation. The fact is that it's a great bit of analysis but Apple will never buy any of those companies. Apple can spend $8 billion securing it's supply chain. This is a much better investment and further increases there profit margins.

    What Samsung et al need to do is to create a spin-off brand like Vertu is for Nokia. you are never going to get brand lust with names like HTC or Samsung. Not because they can't make excellent products (they do). But because of brand dilution with all the other things they make. If I was Samsung I would make a new brand for the smartphone and tablet market. A global brand that radiates premium and luxury. Otherwise it's just a race to the bottom in terms of features/functions/costs.

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  • Joe

    I think it would be way more interesting if Apple bought ATT or Verizon. If they controlled the hardware, software, AND carrier, they could really control the user experience and the pricing. Imagine a world where they allowed the carrier portion of their business to be a true dumb pipe, making all phones VOIP phones, not charging for minutes or for SMS, just for data in tiers. The other carrier could not compete. Who would buy an Andorid phone with a minutes and SMS limit and long distance charges.

    • asymco

      The US is a small part of Apple's phone market. Buying an operator would cut Apple out of the distribution of any other operator.

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  • Am sure it doesn’t surprise anyone of us, with the Apple having resources to own the mobile industry. But, we also cannot publish the supremacy of the smart-phone king so easily. What about the great Android technology. It is the most preferred gadget with the masses that only aims at providing free spaces for the benefit of the end use

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  • Anonymous

    I like the idea put forward in another article that Apple could roll out US wide wifi for less than the cost of buying a carrier. Wifi is unregulated, it then could replace all the US carriers. It could rinse and repeat the process in all unregulated countries.

    The service could then be a low cost option on your iCloud account.

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