Microsoft and Facebook: What could have been (but will not be)

Do you think it's worth it for Steve Ballmer & Co. to try to go back to the negotiation table with Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg in the new year? Are there any other tech acquisitions you think Microsoft should be considering actively?
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

A Microsoft exec confirmed this week what was already reported (by author David Kirkpatrick earlier this year) -- namely, that CEO Steve Ballmer made a serious offer to buy Facebook, but was rebuffed by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

I've heard Ballmer say at least once or twice during various stump speeches that "Facebook wanted to remain an independent company," leading me to believe Microsoft had broached the topic of acquisition on at least one occasion. So this week's revelation didn't blow me out of the water.

But thinking back to 2007, things looked a lot different, in terms of Microsoft's investment strategy. It was a free-wheeling time. That same year, Microsoft almost bought Yahoo. (Luckily, Microsoft M&A guy Charles Songhurst talked Ballmer off the ledge and saved Microsoft $48 billion, as his bio proudly notes.) Microsoft also didn't end up spending the $15 billion (Facebook's valuation at the time) on Facebook. Instead,  Microsoft took a 1.6 percent stake in Facebook for $240 million, "spurning a competing offer from online search leader Google Inc." The Facebook investment --  a move that was ridiculed at the time, as being too pricey -- has been celebrated more recently as being not just wise, but downright brilliant.

Jump to 2010. Might Microsoft have made a new overture to acquire Facebook? Based on the company' very conservative current acquisition strategy, I would say no. As a December 10 Wall Street Journal article acknowledged, corporate America is stockpiling cash due to fears about the economic recovery or lack thereof. "Among the top holders are Microsoft Corp., with $43.25 billion in cash and short-term investments; Cisco Systems Inc. with $38.9 billion; and Google Inc. with $33.4 billion," according to the Journal.

Plus, what would Microsoft do with Facebook?

A couple of years ago, many pundits were advising Microsoft to buy Facebook, primarily to keep it out of Google's clutches. Microsoft also might have benefited from a Facebook acquisition, in terms of improving its search share and/or Facebook advertising play, some company watchers said. But back then, the Softies (and most other tech vendors) had barely scratched the surface of what social networking was.

Yes, Facebook was (and still is) interested in becoming a "platform vendor" -- a status Microsoft already had carved out for itself. So maybe there'd be some synergies there. And yes, Microsoft is interested in making Windows Live more "social." (Though its strategy of surfacing "activity streams" in Hotmail, Windows Live Messenger and a variety of other places has made me and a number of other users rather unhappy campers. Microsoft has been experimenting with using Facebook as a delivery vehicle for its Microsoft Docs and Office Web Apps offerings, and has created tighter integrations between Windows Phone 7 and Facebook.

But take over Facebook? Turn it into a Microsoft subsidiary? Make it the keystone of Windows Live? Big acquisitions are hard and Microsoft has experienced first-hand the challenges of trying to swallow companies like Great Plains, aQuantive and Danger. I just don't see a Facebook acquisition benefiting  Microsoft or its users much. Instead, I can see a lot of backfire potential. If users think the Hotmail brand is tainted, what would they think of Microsoft Facebook?

In the end, I think talk about Microsoft acquiring Facebook is moot. Microsoft isn't buying anything of substanial size or worth these days. And Facebook execs claim they aren't selling.

Do you think it's worth it for Ballmer & Co. to try to go back to the negotiation table with Zuckerberg in the new year? Are there any other tech acquisitions you think Microsoft should be considering actively?

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