Microsoft is buying LinkedIn, but what’s the real motive?

The discussion will live on.

jeff weiner satya nadella reid hoffman microsoft linkedin

The news resounded in an echo chamber this morning.

Microsoft is buying the most well-known and useful social network for business, and it’s quite an earth-shattering deal. They’ll pay $26.2B in cash or $196 per share. The LinkedIn deal was approved by both boards but still needs to go through a regulatory approval process.

LinkedIn has 443 million users worldwide, and has seen almost 20% growth year on year as it has become the defacto tool for recruiting, finding new clients, sharing posts for a wide audience, discussing projects through messaging and group discussions, and the all-important social interactions that happen when anyone clicks “like” on a post or makes a comment.

It’s a curious move, considering Microsoft already snapped up Yammer for $1.2B in 2014. Yammer is essentially the exact same thing but within a closed network for use at a company, while LinkedIn is a much more public forum, although it is still a closed system. (To sign up for Yammer, you use a corporate email account. For LinkedIn, you can use any email. The difference is really night and day.)

There’s a ton at stake here. Microsoft is slowly dropping out of the hardware business for smartphones as they make a bold move with apps like Outlook for the iPhone and a cool Bing app that provides quick info about movies in your area or local eateries. The world is going mobile, and LinkedIn is one of the first apps most of us install on a new phone. How can you not? It’s how we discover the news, find people to fill a new position, and how we connect socially during the day. Social networking is partly a response to the isolation that comes from working at a keyboard all day. When we need to keep doing business on the move, LinkedIn is one of the best ways to maintain business relationships.

I first realized this when I was working on an article about a new book called "Disrupted" by Dan Lyons. It was a bit of a diatribe against startups in general (and one in particular called Hubspot), and I was curious how people who like the company would respond.

There’s a lot of noise on Facebook, thousands of posts about graduation parties mixed in between serious business news. Yet, on LinkedIn, one quick check on a post by the founder of Hubspot revealed hundreds and hundreds of comments from people defending the company. This is why Microsoft is acquiring LinkedIn. It has become part of the fabric of business discussion. All of those comments are from “the LinkedIn community” in the best sense of the phrase.

The article comments -- which you can peruse yourself -- did not devolve into trolls acting like trolls. It was filled with smart comments from people who actually have real jobs. It was filled with people who have something to say and a place to say it. Without LinkedIn, I’m not sure how anyone could parse a discussion like that down to something even remotely useful. Facebook is all over the board. Twitter is too condensed. When we say “woven” we mean useful, that it holds the shirt together. You can stretch it, pull it, drag it over the mud, and even tie-dye it and it will hold up to scrutiny. Woven means it is worth $26.2B and a high stock price.

Microsoft needed something woven, and the acquisition makes perfect sense. Some of their other ventures are a bit frayed at the edges. I’m not sure what will happen with Office, because I’m too busy using Google Docs on a Chromebook Pixel. I’m not sure what will happen with data centers that are so Microsoft-centric, when it’s becoming quite clear that there are thousands of cloud service providers that can do exactly the same thing for much lower costs. I’m not even sure what will happen with the Xbox or Windows 10. There’s some shifting sand beneath these monoliths, and you’d have to be crazy to predict they’ll be around in the same form for the next 10 years.

But LinkedIn? It will have a really long shelf life. It has the same deeply entrenched sustainability as Google ads and Facebook photo archives.

In fact, the social discussion is, ironically, the one predictable aspect of future computer technology. Everything else -- the devices, the operating systems, the entertainment choices, the apps, the software, the security, and even the leadership --will shift.

The discussion -- that’s what will live on.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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