Now That Microsoft-LinkedIn Has EU Approval, the Heavy Lifting Can Begin

 | Dec 06, 2016 | 10:41 PM EST
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Though they've come down hard on Apple  (AAPL) and Alphabet's Google (GOOG) recently, EU regulators applied a softer touch to Microsoft (MSFT)  in its $26.2 billion deal to buy LinkedIn (LNKD) .

With the EU's conditions for approving the purchase likely to have little impact on the deal's value to Microsoft, the stage is now set for the software company to tightly integrate the world's top professional social network and its data on several fronts.

In line with past reports, the European Commission is approving the LinkedIn deal in exchange for three Microsoft "commitments":

  • A promise to let PC makers refuse to bundle LinkedIn with Windows if they wish, and to let users uninstall it should it be bundled.
  • A guarantee that rival professional social networks will maintain the same level of access they currently have to Microsoft Office plug-ins and the productivity suite's programming interfaces (APIs).
  • A promise to let rival professional social networks access the Microsoft Graph, which allows businesses and developers access a variety of files and data from Microsoft's cloud apps and services (including Office 365).

It's unlikely Microsoft's brass is sweating any of these conditions. There's little incentive for PC makers to choose not to bundle LinkedIn, particularly if Microsoft goes through with its plans to develop professional content feeds for Windows users that feature LinkedIn material. Likewise, unless LinkedIn proves very intrusive or distracting right out of the box, most Windows users will see little reason to uninstall it.

And any reference to "rival" professional social networks probably needs to be in quotation marks. LinkedIn's giant user base (467 million registered members, with about a quarter of them visiting monthly) gives the company a natural monopoly in most of the big markets it operates in, just as Facebook claims one in most markets when it comes to networking with family and friends. Granting would-be challengers access to Office 365 APIs and the Microsoft Graph won't do anything to change this.

Now that EU approval is official, Microsoft expects to close the LinkedIn deal within a few days. Which means it's now on Microsoft to make good on its ambitious long-term plans to use LinkedIn to strengthen its empire, and in doing so, help prevent the deal from being the kind of multibillion dollar blunder the Nokia and aQuantive acquisitions proved to be.

Creating Windows news feeds that pair LinkedIn feed data with content and notifications obtained from Microsoft apps such as Outlook and Skype for Business will certainly be part of the effort. There's also an opportunity to use LinkedIn data to make the Cortana assistant services found in Windows and elsewhere more intelligent -- for example, letting users know more about those whom they're working or meeting with.

Meanwhile, apps such as Word, Skype for Business and Outlook can (with the help of AI) proactively surface LinkedIn data whenever it's relevant, and more generally rely on LinkedIn profiles to provide an "identity layer" for users. Microsoft also has plans to integrate LinkedIn's learning services (the product of the Lynda.com acquisition) with Office.

LinkedIn's Sales Navigator (social selling) and Recruiter services can be integrated with Microsoft's Dynamics 365 cloud business app suite, and sold via Microsoft's huge salesforce and reseller network. Microsoft could also leverage its AI and business intelligence software strengths to provide companies with LinkedIn-powered tools that help them obtain more insights about their workers and external talent.

Microsoft's Bing search engine could show publicly accessible LinkedIn content within search results, and perhaps also use LinkedIn's professional data for ad targeting. And Microsoft's engineering and web design teams could help provide a facelift for LinkedIn's oft-criticized user experience.

A lot, though not all, of these benefits will be hard to precisely quantify. That will make it tougher to figure out how financially successful the LinkedIn acquisition is than it was to gauge the financial success (or lack thereof) of something like the Nokia deal.

It's not a stretch, however, to think that the value-add LinkedIn can provide to Microsoft's existing properties could run well into the billions, if Microsoft executes in a way that it hasn't always done with past acquisitions.

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