Apple's Didi investment is already paying off

It looks like Apple’s $1 billion investment into Didi Chuxing, the Uber of China, is already paying off.

Apple said in May that it had invested in Didi, as what was later revealed as part of a $7.3 billion funding round alongside Alibaba and SoftBank which put the Chinese company’s valuation at $28 billion.

Now, after Didi Chuxing announced that it is buying Uber’s Chinese operation, the Chinese ride-hailing giant is valued at $35 billion, according to Bloomberg, or around $36 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Assuming Apple’s investment in Didi is straightforward, that would suggest it’s gotten a 25% return on its investment in a span of just a few months.

That’s not a bad rate of return, even though Apple doesn’t exactly need the money. Also note that Apple is now, after the Didi-Uber deal, an investor in Uber, now that Didi has invested $1 billion into Uber.

That should keep Apple CEO Tim Cook and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick on friendly terms.

Questions about strategy

But how the Uber-Didi deal plays into Apple’s long-term strategy to possibly break into the transportation industry is a lot less clear.

When asked about the Didi investment during last week’s conference call to discuss Apple’s quarterly earnings, Cook offered three reasons:

  1. “From a Didi point of view, we see that as, one, a great financial investment. ”
  2. “Two, we think that there are some strategic things that the companies can do together over time.”
  3. “And three, we think that we’ll learn a lot about the business and the Chinese market even beyond what we currently know, and Didi has an incredible team there.”

While the investment has appreciated, it’s hard to tell how the merger will affect Apple’s strategic stake in Didi.

One of the strategic reasons why Apple might have wanted to invest in Didi is access to its data describing Chinese roads and the ride-hailing market.

Apparently Didi bought Uber’s data under the agreement, and data generated by Uber cars in China will belonging to Didi, according to the Wall Street Journal.

That means the merger could potentially give Apple access to improved or more complete China road data.

It’s interesting to note Didi was aligned with Lyft, the 2nd-place ride-hailing app, in the United States, and Apple had worked with Lyft earlier this year to provide transportation for its employees.

“Please note that Uber is not an Apple-preferred provider at this time,” according an email sent to Apple employees in March encouraging them to use Lyft over Uber.

All roads lead to China

But one of the most likely reasons Apple invested in Uber was that it wanted to mollify Chinese regulators.

Earlier this year, Chinese regulators shut down Apple’s online book and film stores, indicating that more regulatory problems for the American iPhone company could be in store.

Many saw Apple’s $1 billion investment in Didi as an olive branch to the Chinese government, which frequently favours homegrown technology companies over those from overseas.

The fact that Uber threw in the towel in China is most likely not a great sign for Apple. Alex Frangos writes in the Wall Street Journal:

But foreign tech firms in China also face a massive disadvantage in that if they do find success, state media and regulators find a way to cut them down to size.

That formula has done wonders for nurturing China’s homegrown talent, especially Tencent, Baidu and Alibaba, who have been able to grow to scale protected from foreign rivals.

Now count Didi as one of the homegrown Chinese companies that was able to vanquish an American rival, Uber. That leaves Apple as one of the few giant tech companies with extensive Chinese operations.

Apple’s revenue in the most recent quarter was down 33% year-over-year in what it calls “Greater China,” which includes Taiwan and Hong Kong. That’s mainly because of foreign exchange rates and slowing sales of the iPhone 6S — but the chance that the Chinese regulatory climate could turn frosty remains a key concern for Apple.

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