EE Times' Junko Yoshida writes about what's in it for SoftBank in its recent plunking down of Rs.2.15 lakh crore ($32 billion) for ARM.
The charismatic CEO of SoftBank group, Masayoshi Son once again, plays the high-stakes game in his latest Rs.2.15 lakh crore ($32 billion) purchase of chip giant, ARM.
Yes, SoftBank is Japanese, but it’s a company that defies the stuffy stereotype. It doesn’t subscribe to such Japanese traditions as snail’d-pace decision-making, bureaucratic quagmires, endless “internal” discussions, insular thinking and the ultimate paralysis of indecision.
To outsiders, though, the most vexing question about SoftBank’s deal with ARM is SoftBank itself.
Who are these guys and what’s in it for them? Put more bluntly, why does plunking down Rs.2.15 lakh crore ($32 billion) for ARM really make sense for SoftBank?
Some industry analysts believe that the deal tells a story more about Son himself, rather than ARM’s market prospects or any realistic assessment of the Internet of Things in the future. (Read: SoftBank takes IoT a step further with ARM buy)
Mike Demler, a senior analyst at The Linley Group, told EE Times, “The deal looks more driven by Chairman/CEO Son’s personal desire to own a market leader than a sound financial analysis.”
Quoting Son, who remarked at the press conference that up ‘til now Softbank hasn’t owned a company that was number one in its segment, Demler said, “ARM has good growth potential, so it makes a nice trophy for his M&A portfolio. But the Rs.2.15 lakh crore ($32 billion) valuation makes absolutely no sense.”
Remember Comdex? First, let’s look into where SoftBank is coming from.
SoftBank entered the consciousness of the U.S. tech community in 1995, when Son paid Rs.5,366.25 crore ($800 million) for the then monstrous computer show Comdex. That was a big deal, largely because SoftBank was virtually unknown outside Japan. Although already a legend in Japan, Son had little name recognition abroad, either.
Son was introduced as the “Bill Gates of Japan,” and SoftBank was described as a “Japanese software distributor and publishing company” at the time — more than 20 years ago.
Perhaps, one of the most remarkable things about SoftBank since then is that Son has remained atop SoftBank for all these years. Indeed, in many ways, SoftBank is Masayoshi Son, and Son is SoftBank.
Over the years, Son has proven himself extremely nimble in steering the company through different identities throughout the tech industry’s transformation.
No longer viewed as a computer software distributor, Softbank today is a telecommunications and Internet giant. Its businesses encompass broadband, fixed-line, e-commerce, Internet, technology services, finance and media.
Growth by M&As Son has engineered much of SoftBank’s transformation by placing big bets. Some have paid off, others languish.
Demler noted, “Son boasted of Softbank’s investment track record with Yahoo and Alibaba, conveniently ignoring Sprint.” SoftBank is an owner of the struggling U.S. telecommunications company Sprint.
The bets that paid off include a Rs.134.16 crore ($20 million) investment in e-commerce company Alibaba Group Holding in 2000, now worth Rs.4.36 lakh crore ($65 billion), and the Rs.1.01 lakh crore ($15 billion) acquisition of Vodafone’s lossmaking Japanese arm in 2006. That move positioned SoftBank as the number three carrier in the market.
SoftBank has accumulated Rs.1.21 lakh crore ($18 billion) in cash in recent months by unwinding its stakes in Alibaba, Japanese smartphone game developer GungHo Online Entertainment, and Finnish mobile game provider Supercell.
Undoubtedly, Son’s audacity and the available cash on hand made this deal with ARM possible.
Irrational exuberance for IoT and AI? In announcing the deal with ARM, Son made a pitch for the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI), touting them as SoftBank’s next growth engine.
But here’s the thing.
SoftBank is neither a competitor nor a customer to ARM. So it remains unclear why on earth Son wants ARM — other than to expand his investment portfolio.
The Linley Group’s Demler surmised that the biggest factor that led SoftBank to this deal is Son’s “irrational exuberance for IoT.”
He noted, “Son has made successful Internet investments before, so Internet of Things probably sounds similar. But there’s no evidence he understands that the hardware side of the business is different.”
But if all goes well, getting a service provider to fund the hardware business on the IoT market is probably not a bad move. One could argue that SoftBank, as a mobile service provider, has a role to play in advancing the IoT market.
The same could be said about AI. Although this could also be viewed as an example of Son’s irrational exuberance, Son’s passion for robots is well known.
SoftBank, two years ago, turned to Aldebaran Robotics, a Paris-based startup, to create a robot billed as the first robot that can sense people’s feelings.
Named Pepper, the humanoid machine promoted by SoftBank is said to come with “emotions.” Designed to sidle up to humans and to engage them in conversation, Pepper is envisioned in a variety of roles, from nurse to babysitter to portable entertainment provider.
Figure 1: Humanoid Pepper and Masayoshi Son
Idea per minute guy In an interview with Fortune, SoftBank’s former president Nikesh Arora, who recently resigned, described Son as “a person with amazing enthusiasm.”
Arora called Son “an extremely positive person. Once he gets optimistic, I think sometimes he gets carried away. Part of doing things together is tempering some of that enthusiasm sometimes.”
Arora explained Son’s passion for robots. He noted that Son “has an idea per minute. [Recently] he presented his views of the singularity to the SoftBank board. He’s building a robot with a heart. It has Watson in it—that’s supposed to be the rational part of brain, and he’s building the emotional part of it. That’s crazy enough for me. But he’s executing on it. He’s selling 1000 of them every month.”