Apple Buying into Twitter: Neither Likely nor Implausible

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Apple iOS honcho Scott Forstall introduces Twitter integration at the WWDC conference on June 6, 2011

We already know that Apple is a Twitter fan. It’s baked the social network into both of its operating systems, OS X and iOS, in a manner that’s a departure from its tradition of building every possible aspect of its products itself. Now Evelyn M. Rusli and Nick Bilton of the New York Times are reporting that the relationship could lead to something a lot more significant: In recent months, Apple has been in discussions to buy a chunk of Twitter.

In another report, Shira Ovide and Jessica E. Vascellaro of The Wall Street Journal confirm the Times story, sort of: They write that the talks in question happened more than a year ago.

Rusli and Bilton say that negotiations aren’t currently in progress, and that the conversation has involved Apple spending in the hundreds of millions in a deal that could value Twitter at more than $10 billion, which would mean that Apple would be taking a stake of less than 10 percent. So the idea might have led nowhere, and even if something does happen, the impact on the industry could be less than history-making. Still, it’s fun to ponder the implications.

The notion of a deal between the two companies is nothing new: It dates back at least as far as May 2009, when rumor had it they were deep in discussions of a potential Apple buyout of Twitter. That scuttlebutt sounded profoundly fishy, mostly because it was part of a long tradition of speculation involving Apple buying well-known companies–everything from Sony to Hulu–which has always led absolutely nowhere.

Now, Apple does snap up other businesses all the time. But it likes to spend its money on small companies with low profiles which it can integrate entirely into its own efforts. Its decision this week to purchase mobile security startup Authentec is a classic example.

The odds are still against Apple buying part of another well-known company, but these new rumors aren’t unthinkable in the way they once might have been. CEO Tim Cook has said that as he prepared to succeed Steve Jobs last year, Jobs told him not to ask what Steve would do, but to do what was right. It’s not that tough to imagine Cook and Co. concluding that a tighter relationship with Twitter feels right.

That scenario certainly sounds more likely than one in which Apple pours its energies into building its own mammoth social network from scratch. While the company has a long-standing reputation for being bad at social networking, that’s not quite fair: It’s more that it’s evidenced little interest in it over the years.

It launched its most meaningful social effort of its own, the Ping social features built into iTunes, back in 2010. But the whole effort seemed half-hearted in a way that Apple’s efforts rarely are, and when Ping didn’t immediately catch on, the company didn’t do much with it.

Game Center, the multi-player features built into iOS and, as of this week, OS X, is the closest thing Apple has to a social-networking success story. However, it doesn’t really encroach on the turf of the major general-interest networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

Apple is technology’s most fastidious, detail-oriented major player. When it builds something, it worries about every seam, every pixel, every element of the experience. Social networking, by contrast, is inherently untidy. It’s about turning features over to real people and getting out of the way. That doesn’t play to Apple’s strengths, which helps explain why Ping failed to capture the imagination of both Apple and consumers.

But Apple can’t pretend that social networking doesn’t matter. As Cook put it in his appearance at the D conference last May, the company doesn’t need to own a social network–but it does need to be social. So partnering up with an existing major social network, and maybe even owning part of it, could make sense.

As long as Apple and Google are squabbling over Android, that network isn’t going to be Google+. And Facebook, which will get integrated into OS X and iOS this fall, is more of an Apple rival than a potential junior partner. (Both would like to be the single technology company at the center of the lives of people around the world.)

That leaves Twitter, which needs all the help it can get as it does battle with the twin behemoths that are Facebook and Google. A deal with Apple would be a coup. It might also be a worthwhile way for Apple to invest a tiny sliver of the billions it has in the bank.

Of course, any financial transaction between the two companies wouldn’t be a big whoop in itself. What would be fascinating would be if Apple influence started to show up in Twitter, or Twitter helped to shape Apple products. Or both. It would be a blast to see Apple’s chocolate get mixed up with Twitter’s peanut butter.

I’m not going to get emotionally invested in that possibility, though. Remember, both the Times and the Journal are talking about the discussions in the past tense. They could have been tentative explorations that have permanently concluded. Like Tim Cook said, Apple understands that it’s important to be social–but maybe even Apple is still figuring out exactly what that means.

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