Friday, February 1, 2008

Microsoft Offers Yahoo Double its Closing Price to Take On Google

What does it mean when a company announces disappointing earnings and has no strategic plan to move forward? It means that you've been shopping your company like crazy and you're waiting to see what comes out of it. It should come as no major surprise that Microsoft finally made an offer for Yahoo that it will in all likelihood not refuse - USD 44.6 billion to be exact, more than double Yahoo's closing shares value. With an expected 23 percent drop in earnings over Q406, Yahoo's ability to fund a better position in the marketplace in the face of a looming recession was dimming rapidly. Microsoft wisely waited to buy low.

Six months ago I poured cold water on such a merger, seeing News Corp as a far better partner in the long run. I still believe that a News Corp acquisition would have been a great exit for Yahoo in many ways, as the negatives in a Microsoft deal that I pointed out in that earlier post still stand. But at the end of the day this is a merger of necessity, not of opportunity. Neither Microsoft nor Yahoo can compete with Google effectively at this point, a factor that's only going to be exacerbated as Google's mobile strategy begins to unfold this year.

While one can crow about "the merger of content and technology" or some such meme and marvel at the combined online audiences that these two megaportal providers can offer advertisers through the powerful combination of Microsoft's ad-brokeraging system and Yahoo's own ad marketing services there's one key and overarching problem for both companies: they've been slow to bring hit products to the marketplace. Old media and old technology product cycles are not Web product cycles, and neither company has done well in figuring out how to build online hits as effectively as they know how to buy them. Google may not pop out perfectly conceived products and has product issues of its own, but they're constantly letting new things hit the fan to see what new markets they can open up while others spent time trying to build perfect products for old markets.

The big plus of the deal - there is now going to be only one dominant portal for established content brands and marketers looking to position their own brand advertising - is certainly important, but for an upcoming generation of Twitterers who see their own Facebook homepages or newsreaders as the portals that matter most to them it's not clear that this will be a great solution for either company as the new generation of content consumers gains pruchasing power. If you want corporate content and corporate advertising on corporate technology, one certainly knows where to go now. But in three to five years corporations eager to eliminate the "middle man" of media to manage their own market conversations directly may not see as much value in this union as they might today.

The potential feather in the cap for this deal could be the opening of mobile broadband. With a strong position already in mobile devices and now armed with tons of content and a great ad network Microsoft could stake out an early advantage in broadband mobile frequencies now being opened to all devices based on their existing momentum alone. The struggling Vista platform will continue to be refined for enterprise purposes but Microsoft's mobile Windows CE operating system may become instead the default Windows platform for Microsoft's media efforts as home entertainment shifts between mobile gizmos and HDTVs. This is likely to bring strong profits over the next few years and is a very viable strategy overall.

But in the meantime one wonders whether there will be enough focus to make this happen. Having just survived a failed marriage between Hollywood media culture and Silicon Valley culture Yahoo must now adopt to Redmond ways. Microsoft has been redefining its own culture and focus rapidly in postitive directions as the Ballmer period fades away, but the scale of this merger is going to require some major dust settling. All this as a looming recession slows down both enterprise and media markets cannot be helpful.

It's a "Brangelina" marriage that's bound to eat up media cycles, but at the end of the day the fame of these brands is not necessarily going to yield substance out of thin air. This will benefit Microsoft in the short run, to be sure, if it can get to the short run issues in time, but in the long run onie wonders whether two overripe old brands can make a fresh and effective new brand. Time will tell, but at least we can read about this openly now and watch it play out.
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