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Should Facebook Buy Opera?

Speculation swells surrounding the company.
May 30, 2012

The tech press has been abuzz with speculation that Facebook might want to buy Opera, a Norwegian company, to help Facebook meet its promises of long-term profitability. The speculation reached such a frenzy that shares in Opera soared some 26 percent, per Bloomberg. Rumors about a possible acquisition took off in earnest last week, when the blog floated the possibility, citing a “trusted source.”

But what exactly is Opera, and why might it be a good fit for Facebook?

Basically, Opera is the last significant independent web browser, and it’s one that optimizes surfing on mobile phones. It could be especially useful in emerging markets, where more basic flip phones are still the norm, notes Reuters.  Facebook has just about saturated the market in the developed world; markets like India and Africa may be its next frontier and the source of much future growth. Opera’s CEO is bound to understand foreign markets; apart from having obvious experience in the Nordic countries, his bio says he’s also headed up Asian Pacific markets for another company, Tandberg Data, in the past.

I had actually been unaware of Opera before today, but I’m just about ready to give it a try. I have frustrations with most other browsers, and still can’t decide whether my loyalties lie with Chrome, Firefox, or Safari. A video from Opera’s site introduces the browser.

Does it make sense for Facebook to acquire a browser? If only to feel like it has come of age, perhaps. A browser is traditionally a feather in the cap–if not the foundation–of many a major tech company. Apple, Google, and Microsoft each have browsers of their own, after all. “A deal would make strategic sense for Facebook,” one Oslo-based analyst told Bloomberg. “If they want to get their own browser, they have two alternatives: one is to build their own browser, which will take some time, and two is to buy a company that has a current browser. Opera is the only independent player here.”

Rumors occasionally stir that Facebook, in its quest for internet dominance, might begin to acquire the trappings of very different companies. Mark Zuckerberg has hired some top talent from Google, and an image spotted by the tech press on a photograph of Zuck’s laptop led the tech press to speculate whether Facebook was building its own search engine. (The idea being that as Google branches into the realm of social, with Google+, it makes sense for Facebook to return the favor with search.) Facebook has long had a close association with Microsoft’s Bing search engine.

The reasons for Facebook to want a browser of its own, especially among pressures for Facebook to start earning a grown-up salary for its shareholders, are potentially many. As one analyst explained to Reuters, “It would enhance the now limited mobile experience of Facebook, improve Facebook’s mobile monetization problem, help Facebook retain online game developers leaving the social network over the lack of a mobile platform and further improve Facebook’s ability to target ads.” For more on that “mobile monetization problem,” see here. Facebook itself has said the growth of mobile, which is tough to push ads on, might “negatively affect our revenue and financial results.”

Analyst opinion is not unanimous on the Opera question, though. One analyst from Global Equities Research said that an Opera acquisition would be “another stupid acquisition, the previous one being Instagram.”

At the end of the day, much of the speculation may be moot–since it’s not 100% clear that Opera’s for sale to begin with. Opera has cherished its independent status, reportedly. “They’re like the Switzerland of mobile,” said one of Reuters’s sources. “There is no ‘For Sale’ sign up over the company,” said another. And Opera’s own management has stated an interest in focusing on organic growth in the past.

Still, with its recent market capitalization, Facebook certainly has the financial wherewithal to lure even the “Switzerland of mobile” from its heretofore neutral course. We’ll have to stay tuned to see just how this rumored deal–assuming it’s based in reality to begin with–shakes out.

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