In the latest deal in a wave of consolidation sweeping the wireless industry, Apple has announced it plans to acquire Sprint, and its stake in Clearwire. Terms of the transaction were not disclosed, but there is a provision in the deal for Apple to also buy out Clearwire's other investors, which include Google, Intel, and several cable firms.
For Apple and Sprint, this deal represents a quick resolution to several long-term challenges facing each company. Sprint, which had been reeling in the wake of the AT&T/T-Mobile deal, gains the iPhone, the cash it needs to buy out Clearwire from its existing investors, and a needed psychological lift after years of being pummeled by customers, the media, and analysts. Dan Stressee (pronounced Stress-ee), Sprint's CEO, expressed delight at the news, saying: "I was looking at plowing all of the profits I was just starting to make again into lawyers and lobbyists to fight the AT&T deal. I met with Steve last week and we agreed that we'd prefer to focus on just selling a #$&%$load of phones."
Steve ['creating lotsa'] Jobbs, seemed similarly ebullient. "Sprint completes us", he said, recognizing that a wireless network is "the only part of the value chain I don't already control." A network is a critical component of Apple's cloud strategy. The company is building a super-secret, underground, $1 billion data center in North Carolina, codenamed: Operation: Beat Google and Amazon At Their Own Game. "I realized that Sprint and Clearwire own a boatload of spectrum", said Jobbs. "Plus, by getting Sprint to throw in Clearwire, I take Google and the cable companies out of the picture as investors. So, Ha." Apple is going to need all of the spectrum it can get if it wants to offer cloud-based access to all of the music, apps, and video content to the hundreds of millions of devices it sells every hour. Despite his well-known disdain for telcos, Jobbs spoke highly of Sprint and Clearwire. "Combine them and you get "fast", and "simple", which is what we're all about."
Apple, predictably, was not prepared to comment on its cloud strategy, though its CFO, Tim 'I can' Cooke, said in a recent interview that "we hope by 2013, our customers will never have to physically connect their iDevice to a computer again." Sources tell me the plan is called Operation Sync the Cable.
Ironically, Jobbs and Stressee met, secretly, at the same bar near Redwood City where, nearly a year ago, Gizmodo's Jason Chen found an early version of the iPhone 4, mistakenly left there by an Apple engineer. "I needed to get those demons out of my system", said Jobbs. "Plus, I know that no Apple employee would ever set foot in the place again." The two men hit it off immediately. "Dan is clearly the best pitch man among the operator CEOs", says Jobbs. "I really like his folksy manner." In an immediate goodwill gesture, Apple will provide Sprint with a cash infusion, so its next round of TV commercials can be produced in color. "Yeah, it is 2011 after all", said the typically understated Stressee.
Addressing concerns that there might be layoffs at Sprint/Clearwire, Jobbs said the severance package would include an iPad, and tickets to Disney theme parks and the upcoming Cars 2 (Jobbs is on the Disney and Pixar boards). "Who needs more than that?", said Jobbs.
Customers Are Winners
Customers are clearly among the winners in this deal. They'll be able to buy an iPhone from all the major U.S. operators. There were rumors that Apple wanted to make all future iPhones in the U.S. exclusive to Sprint, but Jobbs realized that this wouldn't pass muster with the DOJ. Given that he slipped by the feds, relatively unscathed, in the stock backdating scheme, Jobbs decided he didn't want to ruffle any feathers.
One key benefit for consumers is that the Apple-Sprint deal solves the "CDMA iPhone problem" of not being able to handle voice and data calls simultaneously. A consumer can now talk on a Verizon iPhone with one hand, while running a data session on a Sprint iPhone with the other hand. In order to facilitate simultaneous voice and data, Verizon and Sprint, in an uncharacteristic moment of cooperation, will be offering a "Buy One Get One Free" (BOGO) deal on the CDMA iPhone for the next three months. Said a Verizon spokesperson: "I gotta admit - those AT&T ads are pretty effective."
Reaction Across the Industry
Needless to say, there was plenty of reaction from companies across the industry.
Verizon was, particularly, peeved, having waited for three-plus years for AT&T's iPhone exclusivity to run out, only to then witness the T-Mobile and Sprint deals signed in a fortnight. The company plans to oppose the deal. Said a Verizon spokesperson: "We were content with 'Ruling the Air'. Apple wants to 'Rule The World'."
AT&T, which thought it now had bragging rights to being the "biggest and baddest wireless carrier" in the country, said it did not plan to oppose the deal. "I'm a gambling man", said AT&T Mobility CEO, Ralph de la Vegas. "I'm bettin' on every smartphone platform - iOS, Android, Windows, Symbian, WebOS, BREW, BADA, you name it." True to form, the company is unveiling a new advertising slogan, 'if you want it, we've got it'.
Google's stock took a major hit from the announcement. "We were so used to the operators spending billions of dollars to advertise Android phones", said George 'I am Not Helmut' Schmitt. "We might actually have to spend our own money to market the things." Asked what Google might do to get a leg up on Apple, one analyst commented that Google could improve the customer service experience for Android. But Schmitt said Google is sticking to its strategy: "I promise you, it will never be possible for an Android customer to call us and actually talk to a human being."
In a related development, taking advantage of the mania around cloud services, Oracle announced that it would rename its Sun subsidiary, which had been underperforming of late, to...you guessed it...
RIM, which has seen its stock slide precipitously amidst all the competition in smartphones, seemed prepared for an Apple-Sprint scenario. It has renamed all existing Blackberries "Blackberry Classic", hoping to put a retro spin on the messaging-centric devices. It has also been seen handing out Playbook flyers to all those standing in line for an iPad2.
Amazon is clearly gearing up for a tectonic battle with Apple and Google over mobile services, apps, and the cloud. Emphasizing that it remains the only one-stop-shop on the Internet for just about anything, an Amazon spokesperson snipped: "let them find an app for that."
Among the wireless and digital media giants, Netflix seemed perhaps the most perturbed. Said the company's CEO, Reid 'the battle of' Hastings: "Man, we've taken on video stores, Blockbuster, Redbox, Tivo, Hulu, Cable on Demand services. We thought it would be sufficient to offer all possible content across all possible media, to all possible devices, at an impossibly low price. But even that's not enough."
Even though this is clearly the right move for Apple, the company is sensitive to possible regulatory and customer concerns about becoming too powerful. In one sign of humility, Apple has decided to rename its MobileMe product, which it has been revamping as part of its forthcoming cloud-based offering, to MobileYou. "We thought MobileMe sounded a bit egocentric", said an Apple spokesperson.
Still, as Apple focuses on closing the Sprint deal, many analysts believe the much-anticipated iPhone 5 launch might be delayed until fall. Even though Apple rarely comments publicly about future plans, the Apple spokesperson hinted that there might be some validity to the rumors: "Listen, we still don't know if there will be a new Mad Men or NFL season. Focus on that."
Hope you enjoyed this April Fools edition of the Lens.