Yet another theory about Apple and Beats that doesn’t add up


Music producer Jimmy Iovine. (REUTERS/Gus Ruelas)

It's the day after the big announcement, the heady rush has worn off, and now comes the hard work of figuring out just what Apple can do with Beats.

Many industry analysts have focused on the opportunity for Apple to bolster its place in streaming music against competitors like Spotify and Rdio. Sales of digital music are dropping precipitously, much to the alarm of artists, record labels and probably in no small measure Apple, which pioneered the 99-cent download in the early aughts. Getting into streaming with Beats might once again tilt the business in Apple's favor.

But that explanation may gloss over key aspects of one of the people involved in the deal: Jimmy Iovine. The mogul played an instrumental role in promoting iTunes to skeptical music execs, back when Steve Jobs was developing the software. Now some wonder whether Iovine could do for TV what he did for Apple's music business more than a decade ago. In short: What if the Beats acquisition, over the long run, may be a play for video?

In addition to his links to the music industry, Iovine has longstanding ties to Hollywood. He was a producer for the movie "8 Mile," and worked for American Idol in 2002. That same year, Iovine tried to convince Steve Jobs to buy the Universal film studio, according to Jobs' biographer, Walt Isaacson.

Universal wound up joining with NBC, and later, was bought by Comcast. While Iovine wasn't able to persuade Jobs to make the big buy then, Apple's current leadership appears more willing to part with some of the company's substantial cash. The Beats transaction makes that clear -- the $3 billion deal is Apple's largest acquisition ever.

Now that he will be joining Apple, Iovine could help bridge the gap between the company and the television content companies, Isaacson told Billboard this month. People have been talking about an expansion of Apple TV for years; problem is, Apple needs the studios' blessing before it can successfully field a device worth buying.

Does this make sense? Perhaps. Earlier this year, reports surfaced that Apple was talking to Comcast about a set-top box that would run content over a dedicated channel in the cable pipe.

But some analysts say that if Iovine does have a role in video, it's a long way off — and merely one part of a larger effort to shape and define what's cool.

"These are the big challenges now: understanding taste, making deals, linking Silicon Valley and Los Angeles," said Moshe Cohen, a business school professor at Columbia University.

In an interview with Re/code's Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher at this week's Code Conference, Iovine said he was "not going anywhere near TV."

Besides, if all Apple needed from Iovine was for him to broker an agreement with content companies in a reprise of his 2002 performance over iTunes, why spend $3 billion to buy his company?

Apple could be attempting to move beyond hardware — its core business — at a time when its competitors' devices look increasingly similar to its own. The pitch Iovine made this week was about curation: That Beats, and now Apple, knows better than any machine algorithm what you want to listen to next.

It'd just be really convenient if that idea extended to films and TV shows, too.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecom, broadband and digital politics. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.
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