Apps & Software

Does Microsoft Really Need TikTok?

In a Sunday post on the company’s official blog, Microsoft Corp. (NASDAQ: MSFT) confirmed that it is in negotiations with China’s ByteDance to acquire the Chinese company’s popular TikTok service in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The announcement also confirmed that CEO Satya Nadella had discussed the potential acquisition with President Trump.

Microsoft has agreed to conclude the negotiations with ByteDance by September 15 and said in the blog post that it “may invite other American investors to participate on a minority basis in this purchase.” The president is apparently willing to wait six weeks before dropping the hammer on TikTok, an action he threatened on Friday.

Leaving the obvious politics aside, does a Microsoft acquisition of TikTok make business sense for the world’s third-largest company, with a $1.55 trillion market cap? There are plenty of people who think so.

TikTok is a proven hit, especially among users under the age of 30. Between January and April of this year, U.S. TikTok users between the ages of 18 and 24 doubled to 10 million and more than a third (37%) are between 10 and 19 (TikTok requires users to be 13 years old). Among the six most-downloaded apps in May, only TikTok and Zoom are not owned by Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ: FB).

TikTok could be expensive. A price tag of around $50 billion has been bandied about. That’s only about a quarter of Microsoft’s current cash hoard, but it’s still a lot of cash. And the costs probably wouldn’t end there.

Alex Stamos, who led security operations both for Yahoo and Facebook, supports a Microsoft acquisition. He told New York Times contributor Kara Swisher that TikTok should take an offer from Microsoft in order to avoid having to jump through the hoops of a potential U.S. initial public offering. Microsoft has “one of the best security teams in tech,” according to Stamos.

Microsoft almost certainly will have to beef up that security team in order to assuage the concerns over TikTok’s alleged ties to the Chinese government. While it would be surprising if many of the app’s younger users really care much about giving up personal information in exchange for something fun to do with their friends, government authorities are much less open-minded.

TikTok currently has about 800 million monthly active users, compared to some 675 million for Microsoft’s LinkedIn social network. TikTok’s total is also greater than either Pinterest Inc. (NYSE: PINS), with 367 million monthly users, or Twitter Inc. (NYSE: TWTR), with 340 million.

Each of the four Facebook social media apps (Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, WhatsApp) has more than a billion monthly active users, with both Facebook and WhatsApp at more than 2 billion.

Microsoft’s LinkedIn is a social network for professionals who are likely users of the company’s Windows, Office and cloud-based storage products. This audience is far different from the trendier youngsters whose tastes can change in moments.

While Microsoft may be more nimble today than it was before Nardella took over, the ability to respond quickly to changes in taste does not come cheap. It’s expensive, and possibly distracting, whether you lead or follow. The only thing that’s not a gamble is getting out of the way. Microsoft appears willing to pay big to follow and probably has ambitions on one day leading.

The prospect of dropping tens of billions of dollars pushed Microsoft’s share price up by more than 4% in early trading Monday to $214.59, near the top of the 52-week range of $130.78 to $216.38. The consensus 12-month price target on the stock is $226.93.