The Complicated Chess Game Behind Masayoshi Son’s Investments

March 21, 2017, 1:41 PM UTC
Photograph by Getty Images

I’ve never taken much interest in chess, playing or watching it. Tech industry dealmaking chess, on the other hand, is fascinating.

Take word (in the form of a deeply reported scoop Monday night by The Wall Street Journal’s Rolfe Winkler) that Masayoshi Son’s SoftBank (CRNJF) has pulled out of an investment that would have valued Andy Rubin’s new company, Essential Products, at more than $1 billion.

A scorecard might be necessary here, so let me try to unpack this for you. Son is the brilliant investor who partnered with Yahoo in Japan (and invested in it in the U.S.), bought a lucrative stake in Chinese e-commerce titan Alibaba (BABA), and owns Sprint (S), the trailing-behind U.S. cellular carrier. He tried and failed once to merge Sprint with T-Mobile, and he lately has been romancing Donald Trump in what looks like an obvious attempt to rekindle that deal. Son also is behind a new $100 billion investment fund whose major partner is the Saudi government. Oh, and a tiny sliver of that fund, $1 billion, has been pledged by Apple.

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Now, back to Rubin, who founded Android, which became Google’s mobile operating system and a thorn in Apple’s side. Winkler reports that Son was all set to invest in Rubin’s high-end smartphone startup and changed his mind at the last minute. The presumed reason: He didn’t want to offend his partner, Apple.

Some thoughts. First, if Rubin is onto something good, you’d think a smartphone competitor to Apple with deep pockets might want to step in. Candidates would include Samsung, Huawei or even, so long as pride doesn’t get in the way, Google. Next, this is the second time recently Apple has used its balance sheet to be relevant rather than to invest in its business. Last summer, it put $1 billion into Uber competitor Didi Chuxing, providing it with critical cash and likely pleasing various interests in China. Third, Son is easily the most interesting combination tech investor-operator around these days. It almost makes you want to start watching chess.

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