Facebook’s WhatsApp Deal: Is Google being left behind?


Rakuten’s $900 million acquisition of Viber last week was the starting pistol, and Facebook’s $19 billion punt on WhatsApp was a signal cannon. Over-the-top messaging platforms have become the latest must-haves for a technology empire. But Google has been left out — and its options to regain ground are slim.

The mobile messaging market has changed drastically over a short period of time. Japanese Internet retailer Rakuten announced it had captured Cyprus-based Viber last weekend. And that was just the start. A mega-deal for WhatsApp has rocked the whole technology industry, and anyone who wasn’t previously paying attention to the mobile messaging space before, surely is now.

According to those in the know more acquisitions could follow. Riku Salminen, CEO at Jongla, a Finnish mobile messaging application, says his company saw a deal such as this one coming. “More news like this is definitely coming soon. We believe that 2014 will be the year when we are going to see a number of transactions and public listings to happen in mobile messaging space in particular,” he said.

Facebook appears to have embarked on a new strategy to buy standalone apps and services that will operate independently under the Facebook umbrella. But at its core, the WhatsApp deal buys the social media giant numbers. Facebook currently has 1.2 billion users, and it has just bought a company with over 450 million active monthly users. WhatsApp only charges those users $1 a year for its service, and has kept its platform ad-free. Facebook is not buying the company for its revenues. Founder Mark Zuckerberg knows social media sites have a shelf life: if he can make Facebook more than that, his firm can stay relevant for longer.

But what of Google? It seems the giant is hungry for more than its own Gmail-incorporated messenger, Gchat. Fortune wrote recently that Google offered $10 billion for WhatsApp, only to be gazumped by Facebook. It also reportedly bid $4 billion for Snapchat (another mobile messaging app, where messages are deleted after a short, set amount of time). The Mountain View-based firm has neither confirmed nor denied any acquisition attempt.

That limits the list of potential targets for Google. Speculation, however, continues to mount that the company will make another run at Snapchat. It’s no surprise that Google was also interested in a mega-deal for WhatsApp – the acquisition is similar in many ways to Google’s purchase of YouTube in 2006. Google paid $1.6 billion for the video sharing site, and as with Facebook’s acquisition, investors were initially spooked. But over the long term the move made sense and Google had a firm footing in an upcoming market segment. Facebook will hope that the same is true of its purchase of WhatsApp. Investors have already come round. Facebook shares dipped as much as 2 percent on the WhatsApp news, but have since recovered.

Aside from Facebook and Google, Microsoft is one of the only other companies with the cash to finance a deal for WhatsApp. There are no suggestions the company will bid for a mobile messaging platform soon: it already owns Skype, which has similar features. Microsoft has only just welcomed a new CEO, Satya Nadella, and appears to be focusing on cloud-based software and hardware offerings.

Twitter has also placed emphasis on direct messaging in the past month. Speaking on a quarterly earnings call, CEO Dick Costolo acknowledged that while Twitter is a “town square” for conversation, people want to whisper in their friends’ ears from time to time. Twitter is cash-rich following its IPO last November, but there is little evidence to suggest the platform will move for a messaging company. It is far more likely Costolo was referring to developing Twitter’s own direct messaging function further.

The biggest and most valuable mobile messaging app in the world is arguably WeChat. The Chinese platform is estimated to be worth $30 billion by Barclays, and operates in the same region as other Asian giants such as Line and KakaoTalk. But WeChat is already part of its own mega-company, Tencent, which has a staggering market cap of $140 billion. Tencent may not be content with WeChat though, and has also been linked with a move for Snapchat in the past few months.

Many will question Facebook’s decision to spend $19 billion on a company with so little revenue. But it seems that more deals like it will follow in time. All eyes are now on Google.