In the mid-90s, the pop band Barenaked Ladies sang out scenarios for their fantasy, "If I had a million dollars." Today, in Silicon Valley and due north in Redmond we have a new version playing out where Yahoo, Facebook and Microsoft are all figuring out what they would spend a billion on. While the targets -- Tumblr, Waze and Nook -- make for fascinating discussion of fit and valuation on their own, together they show something interesting about the future of these goliaths beyond the personal computer. They're looking well beyond the personal computer, but in different ways.
Yahoo: Still looking to rebound from its own Tumble
Do you Yahoo? Until Marissa Mayer's arrival last year the answer was "not so much." Now the hottest CEO in the Valley may be at the most unexpected place: Yahoo -- unexpected because of the seemingly endless downward spiral the company had been in under multiple CEOs. Mayer has put the company back in the conversation about relevancy, among consumers and advertisers both, but it's not easy to remake a company that's tumbled like Yahoo! over the past five-plus years. A large part of the Yahoo strategy has been to streamline and, like Facebook and seemingly everyone else, to become more mobile.
After several small acqui-hires, Yahoo has finally swung for the fences with a billion dollar acquisition of Tumblr. Tumblr is a microblogging and social network site, and its audience is decidedly un-Yahoo-like. The median age for Tumblr, for one thing, is 10 years younger, essentially an entirely different digital generation. Tumblr also has many, many mobile users, an area where Yahoo lags. Mobile, perhaps not incidentally, is the only area where Tumblr has allowed traditional display ad sales.
Consider, too, that Yahoo has just announced a move toward native advertising on its sacred home page. Giving the Yahoo sales force more inventory and the ability to blend content between the Tumblr network and Yahoo properties might be a highly valuable combo for consumers and advertisers alike.
Facebook: A Waze to go in mobile
Now on to deals that are still only potential. Every quarter when Facebook reports earnings there is an underlying question about mobile revenue growth. Here's what it looks like over the past nine months:
Q3 2012, 14%
Q4 2012, 23%
Q1 2013 30%.
Facebook has become a mobile, social company with MOBILE in caps. Waze, a crowd-sourced navigation app that encourages users to build real-time maps with current traffic data, is both MOBILE and social. So it's not surprising that Facebook has reportedly been considering a billion-dollar deal to buy it.
Maps are catnip to companies like Google, Microsoft, Apple and now, apparently, Facebook. With Facebook's reach, this early-stage company could make the leap of scale that is unlikely to come on its own. Not dissimilar from the acquisition strategy of Instagram, this one feels "right," because it allows Facebook to provide the people (and ad tie-ins) to an acquisition that already has functionality that should easily integrate into the platform itself.
Negotiations most recently hit a snag, but that's not likely to be the end of the story for Waze and big potential buyers.
Microsoft(ware) and hardware in every cranny
While Yahoo makes a new content play and Facebook considers a mobile app, Microsoft is considering its own purchase. And like the other two it's seemingly consistent with who the company is and where it is going. Microsoft is exploring a buyout of the remaining shares of its joint venture with Barnes & Noble for its Nook Media division. Nook is reportedly getting out of the tablet manufacturing business and has been focusing on content development while watching its e-reader share decline.
Microsoft has made no secret of its intentions to own the living room for some time. The Xbox continues to be a strong solution that is evolving from gaming system to family control unit for all things entertainment (and beyond); Microsoft is rolling out the new version today.
Considering that more than 70% of tablet users acknowledge using the device in the bedroom with 40% watching videos, it's easy to see how a Nook Media ownership position, when combined with the Windows 8 tablet effort, would strengthen the hold Microsoft is aiming to achieve inside the home.
All these deals and potential deals are focused, in their own way, on mobility with high consumer engagement and advertising opportunities. It's premature to say what success would be realized from any of these acquisitions, but for three major players in the digital space, they illustrate the many paths to success now possible. All it takes is a vision and a billion dollars.