We know—or thought we knew—that Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer are smart fellows. But smart, as in understanding software architecture or how to manage a company or develop products is a different kind of smart than strategic smart. Apparently Messrs Gates and Ballmer don’t have the smart big acquisition gene.
I say this as an outsider. I don’t have access to the crunched numbers and five year outlooks no doubt ginned up by the Microsoft investment bankers. And, to be sure, many business pundits have a similar pat justification, all along the lines that both Microsoft and Yahoo have persistently tried to best Google but failed. “No one can compete with Google on their own anymore,” says Jon Miller the former chairman and chief executive of AOL. “There has to be consolidation among the major players.
Suddenly Microsoft, just a few years ago the bad boy of the computer galaxy, is—what—the white knight? Mark Read, director of strategy for the WPP Group, which owns ad agencies like JWT and Ogilvy & Mather, opined, “It is good for investment. It is good for competition.”
A combined Microsoft and Yahoo, notes The New York Times, would beat Google in Web traffic and come closer in ad revenues. Most importantly, the pair would give Google a greater challenge as it tried to enter display advertising, because Yahoo has the largest share of that market.
But wait a second. What does a merger with Yahoo really do for Microsoft—to the tune of a cool $44 billion? Lets look at some numbers.
Google has grown dramatically, going from zero to $17 billion in revenue. It is highly profitable, a bit (well, $200 million) over $4 billion in 2007. Very impressive. But Microsoft had almost 3.5 times that revenue -- $58 billion—and four times the profit-- $17 billion.
So what does Yahoo bring to the party? Not even $7 billion in revenue and a piddling $660 million in profit. It brings a search engine that’s technically pretty good. But Microsoft already has a comparable piece of technology. Yes, most of its revenue is derived form online advertising, nearly twice that of Microsoft.
And what’s the synergy of Microhoo? (or Yahsoft?). Not much that is obvious. Microsoft forecasts at least $1 billion in annual cost savings for the merged entity, from synergies in areas such as combining engineering talent.
Sure, a merger of this magnitude—pegged to cost savings rather than market opportunities-- would make sense if Microsoft was a struggling enterprise. It's not -- and a 29% profit margin at that. It has $21 billion in cash and short term investments. Assuming it actually realized the savings—so what? Microsoft already has the resources to compete with Google—if it is possible at all.
Then what does a Mircohoo end up with? Despite trying, Microsoft has not come up with a strategy to erode Google’s dominance in search and online advertising. Its share of the search market ended last year at 9.8%, down from 12% in mid-2006. Yahoo does better, but fell from an estimated 28.8% mid-2006 to 22.9% last year.
Now, let’s see. We take Microsoft’s failed strategy and add it to Yahoo’s failed strategy... and the best they can come up with is some savings effect, as the combined entity slides further behind.
I understand that the hope is that the two combined would bulk up to a third of the search market—perhaps in aggregate enough to prime the pump to attract more advertisers. But Yahoo alone had nearly a third of the search business in 2005 and that did not keep it from sliding downhill since then.
The combination of Time Warner with AOL in 2001 has been a disaster. However, it was primarily the outlandish $112 billion price tag, negotiated at the peak of the Internet bubble, that made it ridiculous. The notion of an old time content company wanting to modernize by associating with the new media start-up had some strategic sense, even if the conflicting cultures and stratospheric valuation doomed the combination. I could understand the potential synergies, even if not to the degree that could justify the cost.
I can also understand Microsoft’s necessity to segue from the operating system and packaged software business to a greater reliance on Internet-derived revenue. It knows it needs to modify its current business model. But I can think of better uses of $44 billion to get there. Glad I sold my Microsoft stock last year.