By Alex Wilhelm
Rumors that Foursquare is looking to take on a strategic investment from a large technology company kicked up a gear when several sources have reported that Microsoft is perhaps the potential suitor, and, to quote Dina Bass of Bloomberg, the talks are "advanced."
What the hell, you might be thinking, does Microsoft want with Foursquare? It's not application support for its platforms, that's already a done deal.
Instead, I think that the investment is being considered for the same reason that Microsoft pumped hundreds of millions into Facebook: Bing. By buying into Facebook as its only corporate investor, Microsoft has locked up a long-term deal to provide mapping and search capabilities for the social giant.
Snagging a chunk of Foursquare is pro-Bing, albeit in a different fashion. Bing competes with Google and Apple to provide local data, and mapping. The two domains are increasingly overlapping as mobile maps become increasingly multifaceted and less about directions, and more about how to live. Bing, of course, on Windows Phone has Local Scout, a tool that combines geolocation and local business information.
Foursquare fits into this by simply having data that Microsoft wants. The startup has spent years accreting information from its users about more than restaurants, hotels, houses, and everything in between. Back that into Bing and it could enrich its offering perhaps past what Google proffers to mobile users.
Bing already uses Foursquare data. That is the reason I think that Microsoft is interested in the stuff: It knows its value. Also, it would hate to see the inflow stop (if Facebook died), or other parties buy it (Yahoo, etc.) and cut off its access. The move is a combination of offense and defense. Yahoo, of course, leans on Bing for the moment to power its search technology, but that might not be the case in a year's time.
This would improve the user experience of Windows 8, 8.1, Windows Phone 8, and the online desktop Bing experience.
Now, why not buy Foursquare outright? I don't think that Microsoft has to. Foursquare's last round valued the firm at $600 million. Investors would want a premium, and Microsoft has cash. It would not be a cheap acquisition, even given Foursquare current weaknesses.
But with say, $50 million, Microsoft could bail Foursquare out of its most recent loans, and inject enough capital for it to prove a revenue-fueled future. Microsoft gets access to its data, and doesn't have to pay a meaningful (it's quite rich) price for it. And, if Foursquare really does unwind, who would be there to pick up the pieces and pick out the assets that it wants but Microsoft, a current shareholder.
We're also hearing that Yahoo is a possibility. Let the games begin.