Apple is the only technology company that inspires its own fan fiction. No story spreads like wildfire on Twitter quite like stories about Twitter itself. And high-profile leaks to the press are almost always serving someone's interest. This is important to remember when you read articles like "Apple Officials Said to Consider Stake in Twitter," published in The New York Times last night and reliably circulated on social media and picked up (sometimes with a question mark) on blog after blog.
The report takes a single piece of remarkably well-aged, anonymously-sourced news — that Apple had considered a substantial investment in Twitter at some point "in recent months," although the two are no longer in active negotiations. Then it wraps this fact in fan fiction: well-considered speculation on what a deal might mean and which players at Apple and Twitter might be involved if anything resembling what reportedly had been on the table were to be considered again. Crucially, it also says that had the deal been consummated, it would have valued Twitter at more than $10 billion, or 10 Instagrams. Whoever leaked this information to the NYT wanted that high valuation to be a central part of the story.
The Wall Street Journal threw some cold water on Apple-buys-Twitter speculation, verifying that Apple had considered a strategic investment in Twitter, but dating the discussions to "more than a year ago," or around the time Apple was working to integrate Twitter into iOS 5. "People familiar with the matter said there are no current formal investment or acquisition discussions between the companies" say the authors; also that "Twitter has largely ruled out acquisitions as it builds its business for a potential initial public offering in a year or so." (If you look carefully, these reservations are in The New York Times story, too, but aren't foregrounded.)
Leaked info makes Twitter look strong to offset deflating confidence in the social webIn fact, an Apple investment in Twitter is painted as something Twitter can take or leave, but a partnership Apple desperately needs. "As Apple has found, social is just not in its DNA," says the NYT. Between the NYT and the WSJ, we read that Twitter doesn't need Apple's cash (it has "truckloads of money in the bank"), that it's beating its own revenue projections, and that social media content is what will drive hardware sales in the future. It's enough to make you want to go out and buy as much stock in Twitter or any social media company on the secondary markets as you can find!
And that's what this is really all about for whoever leaked this story: protecting the perceived value of Twitter and possibly other social media companies. At exactly the same time that the Apple-Twitter story was published, the NYT also published a report titled "As Social Sites' Shares Fall, Some Hear Echo of 2000," a tough examination of the market performance of Facebook, Zynga, and Groupon, three of Twitter's social web peers who've faced a rocky reception following taking their companies public. The isolated bright spots in the story? Apple's potential interest in Twitter, plus venture capitalists' assurances that whatever problems this batch of companies may be having, they're only short term, and couldn't affect the private valuations of Twitter or other private web companies in their portfolios.
This is about investors trying to prop up the value of multiple tech companies
Let's face it; this was an awful week for the paper value of web companies: not only social media companies new to the market like Facebook and Zynga, but veterans like Netflix and Amazon, too, had to greet investors' unrealistic expectations with some tough reality. Twitter, Netflix, and Google even battled technical outages all on the same day. Instagram may have gained 30 million users since its acquisition by Facebook, but its paper valuation has dropped precipitously as Facebook's stock price has declined. Even Instagram isn't worth an Instagram anymore.
Without some kind of intervention, all of the headlines touching the tech market in this weekend's newspapers would read like this:
Another couple of days like this and the great tech bubble of 2012 might recede into history.
Instead, at least a few now read like this:
Apple has considered an investment in the hundreds of millions of dollars, one that could value Twitter at more than $10 billion, up from an $8.4 billion valuation last year.
Turning to Apple for certainty in a time of uncertainty
Apple is the closest thing we have to a sure-thing technology company. If private markets' valuations and Facebook shares aren't worth what we thought they were, where do we turn? The surest way to get everyone to believe that these companies are worth a fortune is to show that slow, steady, cash-rich, acquisition-averse Apple thinks they're worth a fortune. That's the nearest thing to a gold standard.
Since we're all playing the speculation game anyways, let's speculate. If you have an interest in one of these companies — whether you're a VC, a banker, an ex-Twitter employee sitting on a bunch of stock — and you knew that about a year ago, Apple debated taking on an interest in Twitter (probably as part of the deal to include it in iOS 5), after a week like this, you had every reason to leak that information to reporters this weekend. You also had every reason to let them believe that the deal wasn't dead.
I don't know for certain that this is what happened. But I think it's at least as likely as anything more coming of Apple buying a stake in Twitter. When it comes to mergers and acquisition rumors, this is a very old game in our business.
Apple just doesn't buy everything we'd like them to buy
However, if you're a diehard devotee of Apple fan fiction, please feel free to enjoy Harry McCracken's classic "A Brief History of Apple Not Buying Things." It's almost exactly a year old, triggered by rumors that Apple would buy Barnes & Noble, who'd just had a tough quarter of their own. We all know how that turned out.