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Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols: Facebook + Instagram = one big acquisition flop

April 23, 2012 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - I know, I know. Facebook's acquisition of Instagram hasn't even been finalized yet and I'm already calling it a complete waste of a billion dollars. How can I say that? Easy.

Let's look at the facts, shall we? Facebook paid about $28 for each of Instagram's 35 million users. As such things go, that doesn't seem so bad

-- as long as Instagram's users stick around. But the reality is that faithful fans of the photo-sharing program are royally ticked off by the deal. Those who are frantic to get their pictures out of Instagram before Facebook takes over may well be wary of Facebook's lousy privacy record. If you don't want your Instagram photos used in Facebook ads, you'd better make sure you have your privacy settings adjusted properly -- and then hope Facebook doesn't change its privacy settings yet again.

Moreover, $28 per user is cheap only if Instagram's users aren't already Facebook users. In its pre-IPO S1, Facebook claims it has 845 million active monthly users. I strongly suspect that there's a good deal of overlap between that 845 million and Instagram's 35 million.

So when you boil it all down, what Facebook has really bought is some Web 2.0 software for tweaking pictures. I haven't programmed in years, but I bet I could put together a team of developers, whip up an Instagram clone, and launch it on the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud over a weekend. This is not rocket science.

Mind you, I'm not sure that Steven's Instagram would be worth even the six figures it would cost to build. Today, Instagram's cutesie photo filters are popular -- but they generate no revenue. Tomorrow, they could be as passe as Pet Rocks.

Here's what will happen: Facebook won't see a noticeable increase in users. And Instagram fans who loathe the idea of Facebook getting its hands on their images will move to another platform.

What the heck, though. Mark Zuckerberg is still mostly playing with fantasy dollars, and if he wants to waste a billion of them on Instagram, he doesn't have stockholders to answer to -- yet.

And, as dumb as this move was, it's not even close to such winners as these:

5. News Corp. buying MySpace for $580 million in 2005. It finally managed to dump the social network for less than a dime on the dollar in 2011.

4. Microsoft grabbing digital marketing services agency aQuantive for $6 billion. You might not remember this one, which would be fine by Microsoft. In trying to play catch-up, it paid about twice what Google had paid for DoubleClick, and got much less in return.

3. Oracle acquiring Sun for $7.4 billion. Larry Ellison claimed that he bought it for Java and Solaris. How's that working out for you, Larry?

2. Yahoo paying a combined $9 billion-plus for Broadcast and GeoCities. Yahoo is still paying the price for these two badly thought-out 1999 acquisitions. Those errors in judgment seem to be the most comparable to Zuckerberg's mistake.

1. Time Warner combining with AOL. For sheer dot-com insanity, you can't beat this deal. A better use of the $350 billion might have been to fuel electrical plants with dollar bills.

But seriously, these examples represent the good news for Zuckerberg when it comes to the Instagram deal: It's not the worst tech acquisition ever made.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bps was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at sjvn@vna1.com.

Read more about Internet in Computerworld's Internet Topic Center.



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