Data Sheet—SoftBank Could Double Down With $200 Billion for Tech Startups
A friend who has been around tech almost as long as I have wrote the other afternoon with a question. “What was the tech stock in 2002 that was essentially an index of all the dot-com names?”
I knew right away what he meant. “ICG,” I replied, for Internet Capital Group, a shooting-star dot-com-era failure that hit $60 billion in valuation before crashing to earth.
“The Vision Fund is giving me ICG flashbacks,” he wrote.
He was referring to SoftBank’s $93-billion-dollar Vision Fund, Masayoshi Son’s investment vehicle that is gobbling up billion-dollar stakes in multiple startups that could be conceived of as big data or artificial intelligence plays. Late last week word broke that even when he rounds up at $100 billion Son won’t be content. He intends to raise another $100 billion as soon as possible.
My friend’s memory was mostly right, but for two key details. ICG wasn’t an index fund so much as a collection of venture-capital investments focused on so-called business-to-business Internet companies. (Fortune, in 1999, accurately if painfully described ICG as “a one-stock way to play the net”—a description that worked on the way up and down.) I also was reminded that ICG was essentially done for by late 2000, not 2002 as my friend recalled.
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ICG became a dot-com joke, a one-stock example of extreme hubris on the part of its management and the investment bankers and sell-side analysts who embarrassed themselves by pumping it up. “Internet Capital has the potential to emerge as the dominant 21st-century operating model for creating shareholder value” wrote Henry Blodget, then a Merrill Lynch analyst and today a respectable media executive.
Hindsight taught us ICG has no special sauce, just a huckster’s sense of timing that didn’t last. Masayoshi Son has a track record far more impressive than anyone ever associated with Internet Capital Group, so it is potentially foolhardy to go against him. But $200 billion to invest on a single investment theme?
Incidentally, I was surprised to learn ICG still exists. In 2014 it changed its name to Actua. One of its founders remains CEO. It is worth nearly $500 million. It is somehow comforting to know that old dreams die hard.
IPO hangover. Snap expanded too quickly after its initial public offering, it appears. The maker of the popular messaging app had another round of layoffs last week and plans to slow hiring in 2018.
Hands off my meme. Apple's new cutting edge facial recognition technology isn't just for security. It's also powering the rather silly animated and talking emoji feature dubbed animojis. But a Japanese software company called Emonster kk sued Apple last week, saying it holds the U.S. trademark on the term.
Save the dreamers. Many of the largest U.S. tech companies are joining together to lobby for legislation to allow the young immigrants known as "Dreamers" to remain in the country. Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Intel, among others, are listed backing the group Coalition for the American Dream, Reuters reported.
Trouble in Android phoneland. Andy Rubin's startup Essential cut the price of its flagship phone by $200 to $499. And Google said it is investigating reports of problems with the screens on its brand new Pixel 2 XL model.
Eye on the future. Cisco Systems is buying telecom software maker BroadSoft for almost $2 billion. The deal comes as large telecom carriers are buying fewer of Cisco's proprietary hardware switches and relying more on software-based networks running on generic servers.
Under wraps. T-Mobile announced strong third quarter results but with investors much more interested in the carrier's rumored merger with Sprint, executives did not hold a conference call with analysts. "We want to keep the focus on those results, without letting them be drowned out by the rumors that have been swirling around," T-Mobile said in a statement.
Normalization. Digital currency trading platform LedgerX said it started dealing in swaps and options last week, completing $1 million worth of bitcoin-denominated transactions. The products, which resemble standard foreign exchange derivatives, should open the digital currency market to more large investors.
You're covered. Elon Musk is obviously after various facets of the transportation industry, with Tesla electric cars, SpaceX rockets, and the underground vacuum tube concept called Hyperloop. But he may be after even more bits off the economy. Tesla has made a deal with Liberty Mutual to offer customized insurance to Tesla owners, Business Insider reports.
Not exactly. Hackers are targeting data about school children, or so says a headline in Monday's Wall Street Journal. But the accompanying article includes no data to back up the charge, and most of the anecdotes cited had to do with common and less-headline grabbing cybercrimes like payroll check thefts and ransomware system lockouts.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Cover stories in the investment weekly Barron's about tech stocks cannot be ignored since the famed March 20, 2000 article "Burning Up" helped pop the Internet bubble. This weekend, the magazine was again focused on tech stocks in a piece by Tiernan Ray with the spoiler headline "Breaking Up Tech."
In the piece, Ray reviews many of the regulatory and legal challenges facing Amazon, Facebook, and Google parent Alphabet around the world while recounting the history of the regulatory assault on IBM and near-break up of Microsoft. Still, Ray sees a path to avoid calamity:
Can Facebook, Google, and Amazon avoid much tighter regulation or a breakup? Yes, but they’re going to need to change their ways. For every mea culpa from Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg about Russian advertising in the 2016 presidential election, there seems to be at least one utterly tone-deaf incident. That would include her boss Mark Zuckerberg’s recent demonstration of his firm’s new virtual-reality gadget by pretending to tour the devastation of Puerto Rico, a move that seemed especially insensitive.
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BEFORE YOU GO
Google's smart reply feature in Gmail doesn't just offer canned responses written by a programmer somewhere in Mountain View. The answers are actually based in part on things in the user's prior emails. Writer Mike Brown went a week responding to email with nothing but these AI-culled suggestions. Check out how the experiment went.