Don’t be fooled by randomness

The method in Microsoft’s merger madness


TAKE OUR cash, or at least our shares. That appears to be Microsoft’s mantra these days. After failing to acquire the American operations of TikTok, a short-video App, last year, the software giant was recently rumoured to be in takeover talks with Pinterest, a virtual pin-board, and Discord, an online-chat service. And on April 12 th the firm announced that it would acquire Nuance, a speech-recognition specialist, for nearly $20 bn in cash—its second-biggest acquisition ever.

收下我们的现金,或者至少收下我们的股票。这似乎已经成了微软这阵子的口头禅。在去年试图收购短视频应用 TikTok 的美国业务失败后,最近有传言称,该软件巨头正与虚拟看板 Pinterest 和在线聊天服务 Discord 进行收购谈判。而在 4 月 12 日,微软宣布将斥资近 200 亿美元现金,收购语音识别公司 Nuance。这是该公司有史以来第二大收购案。

Even before this latest flurry Microsoft had acquired a reputation for coveting tech firms that looked as alien to its core business of selling Office software as TikTok’s dance videos are to Word and Excel. Five years ago, in its biggest purchase, it paid $26 bn for LinkedIn, a business-oriented social network. In 2018 it picked up GitHub, a development platform for open-source programs, for $7.5 bn. “Is Satya Nadella getting bored?” wondered the Information, a website covering the tech industry. Having successfully turned Microsoft around, observers murmured, its boss might be in the grip of merger madness. In fact, there might be a method to it.

早在最近这一轮收购潮之前,微软就已经以热衷收购各种科技公司而闻名。目标公司与其销售办公软件的核心业务并不搭界,正如 TikTok 上的跳舞视频和 Word 及 Excel 格格不入一样。五年前,它斥资 260 亿美元收购了面向企业的社交网络领英(LinkedIn),这是它迄今最大的一笔收购。2018 年,它以 75 亿美元收购了开源程序开发平台 GitHub。「萨蒂亚・纳德拉是太无聊了吗?」科技媒体网站 The Information 质疑道。观察家们嘀咕,在成功扭转微软的颓势之后,这位掌门人似乎陷入了并购狂热而无法自拔。但实际上,这当中或许有章可循。

For starters, Microsoft’s merger activities are unexceptional by big-tech standards, says Mark Moerdler of Bernstein, a broker. The industry is rife with takeover rumours; most are probably true. Large firms talk regularly to each other about potential deals. It is safe to say that Microsoft has term sheets for many potential targets on file. It still invests far more in expanding its existing businesses than on buying new ones. Excluding the Nuance deal, the company has spent only $33 bn on big acquisitions in the past four years, compared with $64 bn on research and development. It has oodles of cash in the bank ($132 bn at the end of last year) and a valuable currency (its share price is up by more than 600% since Mr Nadella took over in 2014). Unlike rivals such as Alphabet and Facebook, both of which face antitrust cases and have steered clear of big deals lately, Microsoft is no longer on trustbusters’ radar.

首先,经纪公司盛博的马克・莫德勒(Mark Moerdler)认为,以科技巨头的标准来看,微软的并购活动并不稀奇。这个行业充斥着收购传言,大多数很可能是真的。大公司之间经常就潜在的交易机会互相沟通。可以肯定地说,微软手头已经有针对许多潜在标的公司的投资意向书。与收购新业务相比,这家公司在扩大现有业务上的投入还是要大得多。除了 Nuance 那笔交易外,微软过去四年在大型收购上的支出仅为 330 亿美元,相比之下研发支出达到 640 亿美元。它的银行账户上拥有大量现金储备(去年年底达 1320 亿美元),同时公司市值不菲(自纳德拉 2014 年上任以来,股价已经上涨超过 600%)。Alphabet 和 Facebook 等竞争对手面临反垄断调查,近期都避开了大型交易,但微软已经不在反垄断机构的目标范围。

By its relatively timid standard, though, Microsoft has indeed become more acquisitive in recent years (see chart). Having provided textbook examples of what not to do, most notably after buying Nokia, a phonemaker, and Skype, an internet phone service, it has learned how to integrate targets successfully. Under Mr Nadella it has taken on a shape that better lends itself to this process.

不过,以微软相对谨小慎微的标准来看,近年来它的收购欲望确实变得更强烈了(见图表)。它曾提供了一些教科书般的失败案例,最突出的是收购手机制造商诺基亚和互联网电话服务 Skype,但此后微软已经学会了如何成功地整合目标公司。在纳德拉的领导下,这家公司已经转变形态,变得更加适合收购。

Simply put, it has become a giant computing cloud that can digest any data and offer any service. An acquisition can thus add to the business in more ways than one—and “feed the beast” ,in the words of Brent Thill of Jefferies, an investment bank. Even TikTok would have brought new computing tasks for the cloud, provided reams of videos to train artificial-intelligence algorithms and allowed the firm to beef up its consumer business.

简单地说,它已成为一个巨大的计算云,能够消化任何数据,提供任何服务。因此,每一宗收购都可以在不止一个维度上为业务增加价值,并且——用投资银行杰富瑞(Jefferies)的布兰特・希尔(Brent Thill)的话说——不断「喂养巨兽」。即使 TikTok 这样的公司也会为云带来新的计算任务,提供海量视频来训练人工智能算法,从而增强微软的消费者业务。

Purchases also help Microsoft to keep growing rapidly by allowing it to ride big industry trends. Discord, like GitHub before it, looked to be a bet on the shift toward creating content and related user communities, which Mr Nadella thinks will dominate life online. A bit like LinkedIn, Pinterest would give Microsoft access to data about people’s interests, which could enable new forms of e-commerce.

收购也有助于微软搭乘行业大趋势,保持快速增长。与之前收购 GitHub 一样,收购 Discord 看来是在押注向创建内容和相关的用户社区的转变——纳德拉认为这将是网络生活的主流。Pinterest 有点像领英,可以让微软获得关于人们的兴趣爱好的数据,继而可能催生新的电子商务形式。

The Nuance deal encapsulates all these considerations. The firm is best known for its speech-recognition software and a health-care platform used in 77% of American hospitals. This technology, along with lots of valuable health data, will beef up Microsoft’s “health cloud” 。Nuance’s portfolio of patents can be used elsewhere in Mr Nadella’s empire. Though $20 bn looks pricey for a firm with a net profit of $29m last year on revenues of $1.5 bn, Microsoft can afford it. Discord and Pinterest seem to be off the table for now. But expect Microsoft to surprise with more deals. And don’t be fooled by their apparent randomness.

收购 Nuance 集中体现了所有这些考量。这家公司以其语音识别软件和医疗平台闻名,77% 的美国医院都使用该平台。这项技术,连同大量宝贵的健康数据,将大大充实微软的「健康云」。Nuance 的专利组合还可以用于纳德拉的商业帝国的其他角落。尽管对于一家去年收入 15 亿美元、净利润 2900 万美元的公司来说,200 亿美元的收购价格似乎有些昂贵,但微软负担得起。目前看来,Discord 和 Pinterest 似乎已经不在考虑之列。但等着看微软达成更多出人意料的交易吧。也别被它们表面上的毫无章法给迷惑了

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