Why Google likely overpaid for Widevine

Yoav Schreiber, Current AnalysisProve me wrong, but I still don't understand why Google purchased Widevine. 

Ostensibly, Widevine provides Google with tangible technological benefits: a digital rights management (DRM) solution and an adaptive bit rate (ABR) streaming solution.  In addition, Widevine provides Google with less tangible benefits, including relationships with content owners and with consumer electronics (CE) device manufacturers.  Such easy to point to benefits would lead one to conclude that Google needed to pay a premium to acquire Widevine.  Yet, it remains unclear what technology or business benefits the transaction provides Google that would perceptively improve its Google TV proposition which suffers from a lack of premium content.

Terms of the transaction were not revealed, and I don't purport to have a financial valuation for Widevine.  However, analysis of the acquisition leads to a directional conclusion that the ultimate valuation should be south of the more than $50 million raised by Widevine.

The acquisition suggests that Google needs to own a DRM solution to complete its platform proposition and earn the confidence of content owners to release their premium content assets for distribution on Google's TV service.  Market evidence from almost every IPTV, OTT and other video provider indicates that licensing robust DRM technology is sufficient.  In addition, Widevine's DRM scheme is of diminishing importance in a multi-screen world where multiple DRMs need to be supported across multiple devices (what has Motorola gained from owning SecureMedia?).  Finally, Widevine's proprietary DRM technology faces increasing competition from open DRM alternatives, such as Marlin, which was recently adopted by YouView in the UK.  Given these alternatives to owning Widevine's DRM technology, the valuation for Widevine should be adjusted downwards.

Widevine's video optimization solution fills a technology gap in Google's overall proposition, providing Google with a framework for ABR streaming, which is currently lacking in its Android platforms and Chrome browsers.  This is the clearest case for acquiring Widevine.  But should the entire valuation rest on this technology?  More importantly, if Google wanted ABR technology, it had plenty of alternatives, including companies with more established market traction. While those companies (i.e., Inlet, Vidiator, Envivio) may have been more expensive, their presence should have provided Google with bargaining power to lower Widevine's asking price.

The lack of content owner relationships is only a symptom of Google's content problem.  Leveraging Widevine's established relationships will likely yield questionable results.  First, Google already hired content executive Robert Kyncl from Netflix, ostensibly to build content owner relationships.  (By the way, Steve Jobs hasn't magically opened premium content doors for Apple TV either.)  More concretely, how much of Widevine's valuation should be based on these relationships?

Finally, arguments can be made that Widevine's relationships with CE vendors will help Google expand the distribution of its Google TV offering to additional platforms, including, most importantly, tablet devices.  There is some merit to this argument, as Google needs to ensure its participation in the growing consumer adoption of tablets. However, does Google really need Widevine's relationships?  Google's Youtube already commands enough industry mind-share such that every CE vendor considers a Youtube application to be table-stakes.  As such, Google could again bargain down Widevine's asking price.

Google's real problem is that its advertising-based business model is not aligned with that of content owners who want to be paid up front for the rights to distribute their premium assets.  Google needs to appreciate that content owners are motivated by greed more than fear. Content owners fear the piracy of their content in the absence of robust DRM.  They fear Google's encroaching ownership of all things digital ... but, they are also greedy.  Why should content owners barter their premium assets in exchange for advertising revenue, when there are customers (i.e., Netflix) willing to pay up front for accessing premium content (reportedly to the tune of $100,000 per current TV episode)?  Google should realize that playing their game (content is still king, after all) requires paying content owners for distribution rights, not sharing advertising revenue after-the-fact. Otherwise, Netflix will end up with all the content and subscribers.

An interesting side note to the acquisition is that Widevine's video optimization solution potentially ties into Google's WebM proposition which offers an open codec and media container format for online video delivery.  Unlike the content chunking/segmentation approach of most ABR frameworks, both Google and Widevine send a single video file that incorporates multiple bit-rates.  With Widevine's ABR solution, Google gains a potential card to wedge alongside established ABR frameworks from Adobe, Apple and Microsoft, although Google will need to rationalize Widevine's proprietary technology with its open WebM approach and convince the market of the benefits of sending multiple bit rates in a single file.

Undoubtedly, Google has the cash for this relatively small acquisition, and as such, success or failure of the transaction is low risk.  But did Google need to pay-up for Widevine?  One should hope not.

Yoav Schreiber is Senior Analyst for Digital Media Infrastructure at Current Analysis, and a FierceCable contributor. Follow him on Twitter @yschreiber.

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