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Microsoft’s purchase of LinkedIn looks a lot better than its failed Nokia deal

Rick Newman
·Senior Columnist

When Microsoft (MSFT) announced plans to buy the Finnish phone maker Nokia in 2013, then CEO Steve Ballmer called it a “bold step into the future.” It was more like a step off the plank. Microsoft never got traction in the smartphone market and wrote down the $7.9 billion deal barely a year later – laying off roughly 80% of the Nokia employees it had brought on board.

Microsoft’s just-announced purchase of LinkedIn (LNKD), under new CEO Satya Nadella, looks like a smarter deal. Microsoft is paying $26.2 billion to fully acquire the social network for professionals, a 49% premium to LinkedIn's stock price prior to the deal. It’s the first big acquisition for Nadella, who took over from Ballmer in 2014.

"Owning LinkedIn gives Microsoft a great way to keep a pulse on what business users are doing on the web and how they may use certain tools and products," analyst Jack Gold of J. Gold Associates advised clients, following news of the deal. "This ability will give Microsoft lots of knowledge in how to deploy future products."

Unlike Nokia, which was one of many smartphone makers when Microsoft bought it, LinkedIn is a market leader. “LinkedIn sits alone at the top of the market for professional social networking,” Morningstar says of the company. LinkedIn was founded in 2002 – two years before Facebook – and has a trove of data on its 433 million members. It earns the majority of its revenue helping companies recruit workers, with other revenue coming from advertising and a lead-generator service for salespeople.

Nokia operated in a crowded market with low profit margins for most providers. And Microsoft bet on the company’s phones, powered by Microsoft’s software, at a time when the smartphone market was consolidating under two primary brands, neither of them Microsoft: Google’s (GOOGL) Android system and Apple’s (AAPL) iOS. The Nokia purchase was a bet on hardware — never a Microsoft strong suit — that simply came way too late.

Aligning with LinkedIn, by contrast, actually does look like a bold step into the future. While other professional networks challenge LinkedIn in developing nations like China, Morningstar says, “We do not believe [another] company could launch a competing offering.” The only exception might be Facebook (FB), but Mark Zuckerberg's company seems more focused on connecting mass-market consumers – and possibly getting into ecommerce – than in challenging an established competitor in professional networking.

Nadella wants to connect Microsoft’s cloud services with LinkedIn’s professional network. That seems to be a natural fit in a growing field with little overlap. Microsoft is the second largest cloud operator, after Amazon (AMZN), and that business is expected to continue growing rapidly as more companies outsource their storage and server needs. Microsoft has also moved its Office suite of software to the cloud, along with its Dynamics offering, which helps small- and medium-sized businesses manage clients and other matters. LinkedIn will now give professionals new ways to access Microsoft products, such as Office, Skype or Yammer, and let Microsoft pitch its offerings to a large new target group.

There are always risks. Microsoft might be paying too much. Something new could come along to displace cloud computing or professional networking. And Microsoft could bungle its pitch to LinkedIn members, alienating users with hard-sell tactics or tedious disruptions. At the outset, however, the Microsoft – LinkedIn deal seems to match two business aligned about as well as possible for an unpredictable future.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Financial and Political Freedom. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.