Viber was the enigma of the mobile messaging wars. Why did Rakuten buy it for $900 million?

Viber minh

Viber CEO Talmon Marco interviewed at Startup Asia Jakarta 2013

The Wall Street Journal has reported that Rakuten, the Japanese e-commerce firm, will purchase Viber, the Cyprus-based mobile messaging startup for $900 million.

The purchase marks a major development for both companies. Rakuten hails from an e-commerce legacy, but in recent years has sought to reach into new verticals. In late 2011 it purchased the team behind Canadian e-book reader Kobo for $315 million, and six months later invested $100 million in US-based social network Pinterest. Viber, meanwhile, was founded in 2010 and funded entirely by money from iMesh, the founders’ previous venture.

Rakuten Chairman and CEO Hiroshi  Mikitani said in a statement:

“I am tremendously excited to welcome Viber to the Rakuten family. Viber delivers the most consistently high quality and convenient messaging and VoIP experience available. Additionally, Viber has introduced a great sticker market and has tremendous potential as a gaming platform. Simply put, Viber understands how people actually want to engage and have built the only service that truly delivers on all fronts. This makes Viber the ideal total consumer engagement platform for Rakuten as we seek to bring our deep understanding of the consumer to vast new audiences through our dynamic ecosystem of Internet Services.”

Good vibrations

News of the acquisition broke just days after a flurry of rumors emerged over a potential acquisition of Viber by what was described as a “leading Asian IM company.” Hours later Viber CEO Talmon Marco replied to various media outlets (including Tech In Asia) declaring the rumor unfounded, and the ruckus quickly quieted down.

As the tech industry observed the global mobile messaging race last year, it grew difficult to pinpoint how Viber was faring against its competitors. While the company claimed to have 300 million registered users on its app, it never provided a regional breakdown for that figure. It also never disclosed its number of monthly active users. Line has at least that many registered users, and has some monster revenues to prove that people love it.

Moreover, it arrived at monetization relatively late, launching two relatively uninspired features at the end of 2013 – a sticker market (not exactly a novel concept) and a Viber-to-landline feature (hello, Skype). Marco never announced aspirations to evolve into a sexy e-commerce platform or a sophisticated mobile social network. But he also never expressed a desire to stick just to messaging, like WhatsApp. With no data on active users and no mind-blowing innovations to date, some suspected that Viber was a 300 million-strong piece of bloatware. Apparently Rakuten believes that’s not the case.

Without knowing more details about Viber’s performance relative to its peers, it’s difficult to understand what the acquisition means for Viber (other than a fat check). In any case, the deal confirms Rakuten’s ambitions to branch out internationally. Messaging apps are quickly becoming channels for e-commerce, as evidenced by Japan’s Line Mall and WeChat’s forays into offline payments. The Viber acquisition therefore gives Rakuten a proper bandwagon to hop on.

Viber’s traction is still an unknown, but Rakuten certainly has the money and resources to tilt its development in any desired direction, whether that be towards e-commerce or another vertical. It also opens the door for advertising campaigns. Viber shunned traditional advertising in the past, but Rakuten might flip the switch in order to compete in Southeast Asia, where billboards for Line, Kakao Talk, and WeChat pepper city streets. In any case, expect the plain-Jane Viber to look quite different in the coming months.

(Editing by Willis Wee)

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