Will Facebook buy Opera?

The Facebook smartphone speculation has gotten ahead of itself.

By Jonathan Berr May 29, 2012 10:22AM

While U.S. investors were enjoying the Memorial Day holiday, European investors were speculating whether Facebook (FB) would buy Opera Software, a Norwegian company that makes one of the most widely used mobile Internet browsers. The reason? The social network's plan to create a Facebook smartphone.


There may be less to this rumor than meets the eye, though the media coverage made it seem like the ink on the deal was almost ready to dry.

A Reuters story noted that "Opera Software would cost Facebook over $1 billion as competition from Google and others could push up the price tag." One problem with this narrative, as the story notes, is that Opera founder and top shareholder Jon S. Von Tetzchner doesn't seem to be in a rush to sell. He told the news service he was "not aware of a bid" and had not "decided how he would react to one."

I find it hard to believe that Von Tetzchner really doesn't know how he would react to a bid for his company. Most businesses would sell to a larger rival -- gladly -- if the price were right. That's the American way and presumably the Norwegian way, too. But there is an even bigger point that many people are missing: Buying Opera Software may not be as great of an idea as the media reports suggest.

"Opera has a small, but loyal, number of users," writes Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols in ZDNet. He is skeptical about the Facebook smartphone. "Still, loyal as they may be, Opera has long trailed Chrome, Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Safari in sheer number of users. . . . In short, Facebook certainly wouldn't be increasing its market-share with its own Web browser. Heck, Facebook doesn't even list Opera as one of its supported browsers."

What's stopping Facebook from developing its own Opera? Moreover, a Facebook smartphone is hardly a slam dunk. Dell (DELL), Sony (SNE) and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) have tried and failed to build a smartphone. Facebook also isn't a hardware company, even though it reportedly is hiring engineers from Apple's (APPL) iPhone team, and establishing itself in that market won't be cheap. The company took in $16 billion from its rocky IPO, so it certainly can afford to try.

The Facebook smartphone raises many questions without many easy answers. Investors who are wondering whether this makes a good entry point for buying the stock should wait a while until the situation becomes clearer. It's no wonder that Facebook hit an all-time low Tuesday morning, falling below $30 for the first time.

Jonathan Berr does not own shares of the listed companies. Follow him on Twitter@jdberr

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