Tech Watch: New Priorities at Apple and Google

Rising geopolitical risk in Ukraine and Israel was only good for a one-day scare, it appears. (Still, the S&P 500 did finally break a 62-day streak of sub-1% moves yesterday -- the longest such streak since 1995). U.S stocks are marginally higher on Friday morning, with the benchmark S&P 500 and the narrower Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI  ) up 0.4% and 0.3%, respectively, at 10:15 a.m. EDT. In company-specific news, two heavyweight technology rivals, Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL  ) and Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL  ) (NASDAQ: GOOG  ) are making significant changes at the board level and, in Google's case, within its top executive ranks.

Following board changes at Hewlett-Packard and Google earlier in the week, Apple becomes the third tech titan to announce a change, welcoming BlackRock founding partner and board member Sue Wagner as a new director. BlackRock is the world's largest asset-manager. What does Ms. Wagner bring to the table? In a statement, Apple CEO Tim Cook said, "We believe her strong experience, especially in M&A and building a global business across both developed and emerging markets, will be extremely valuable as Apple continues to grow around the world."

This suggests that acquisitions could play a bigger role as Apple seeks to expand its reach into consumers' (and businesses') digital lives. In fact, that process may already be under way. In February, Mr. Cook told The Wall Street Journal:

We've looked at big companies. We don't have a predisposition not to buy big companies. ... We have no problem spending ten figures for the right company that's the right and that's in the best interest of Apple in the long-term. None. Zero.

At the end of May, Apple announced a ten-figure deal: The $3 billion acquisition of Beats Electronics, the premium headphones and music streaming business fronted by Dr. Dre. At that time, Mr. Cook told the Financial Times:

Is [the Beats Electronics deal] the first of many? We will always be looking, we have always looked. We have looked at much larger companies, we've looked at much smaller companies. We are going to continue to look at the whole range of companies. I know you may see it like this but it's not a change in strategy. It's the same strategy we've always had: we look out for companies that are strategically positioned, where we can do something greater in the future.

The purchase of Beats Electronics may not represent a change in strategy, but it is nevertheless far and away the largest acquisition in Apple's history, in dollar terms (the next largest was that of Steve Jobs' NeXT Software for $400 million in 1997). Furthermore, the pace of smaller acquisitions under Tim Cook appears also to have accelerated, with Cook telling the FT that Apple had done 27 acquisitions in the prior 20 months.

Furthermore, given Apple's size -- which continues to grow -- unless a deal is purely focused on acquiring a technology (which is often the case), bigger targets become necessary if they are to move the bottom line. I think we can expect more Beats Electronics-type deals from Apple in future.

One Apple rival that hasn't shied away from large acquisitions is Google, which is also making some board and management changes. At the beginning of the week, the search giant announced that it has recruited former Ford CEO Alan Mulally to its board. Yesterday, on top of its second-quarter results, Google also announced that chief business officer Nikesh Arora is leaving to become vice chairman of Softbank.

While that departure is surely voluntary, Reuters ran a story late yesterday that highlights a number of executive changes at the top of the search giant. According to the article, the changes reflect a shift in strategic priorities within the company. For example, there was the departure of Google veteran and Google+ head Vic Gundotra in April; Google+ has never given Facebook much of a run for its money, and Google now appears to be de-emphasizing its social network. Meanwhile, new projects are taking on new importance, with Craig Barrat joining Google's senior management. Mr. Barratt is tasked with building out broadband networks and expanding wireless Internet access.

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