Microsoft plans smaller deals, independent path

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Microsoft Corp MSFT.O Chief Executive Steve Ballmer said on Thursday the company aims to pursue an independent path, focusing on up to 20 smaller acquisitions of $50 million to $1 billion each annually rather than mega-deals.

Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer walks past an advertising poster in Zurich October 4, 2007. Ballmer said on Thursday Microsoft will probably buy up to 20 companies a year at a cost of anywhere from $50 million to $1 billion for the next five years. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

Armed with a cash pile of $23 billion, Microsoft has been rumored to be targeting acquisitions like Yahoo Inc YHOO.O, or social networking phenomenon Facebook.

Speaking to the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco, Ballmer would not comment directly on any potential acquisitions, but he said Microsoft’s current focus is the “independent path.”

“If at some point it makes sense, maybe then it makes sense. But that’s not where we are going. We are driving in an independent direction,” said Ballmer in a question-and-answer session.

The CEO of the world's largest software maker said it is logical for people to speculate that main rivals would join forces to take on an industry leader. In this case, Ballmer was referring to dominant Web search leader Google Inc. GOOG.O

Microsoft historically has shunned costly acquisitions, opting to purchase lots of less expensive companies. But company watchers saw this year’s $6 billion acquisition of digital advertising company aQuantive Inc as a change in strategy.

Due in part to the aQuantive acquisition, Microsoft CFO Chris Liddell has said the company will spend more this fiscal year in acquisitions than on research and development for the first time in the company’s history.

Microsoft has said it bought 23 companies in the 2007 fiscal year ended in June. Of those, it reported 13 acquisitions valued at a total of $1.34 billion, including an $800 million purchase of voice recognition technology company Tellme Networks.

“We’ll probably buy 20 companies a year consistently for the next five years,” said Ballmer.

Ballmer, who joined Microsoft in 1980 at the request of his Harvard classmate Bill Gates, took the stage a day after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who like Gates is a Harvard dropout turned technology wunderkind, spoke to the audience.

Both men were reserved in response to questions about reports that Microsoft is in talks to buy up to 5 percent of Facebook in a deal that could value the social networking company at $10 billion or more.

Zuckerberg and Ballmer both said: “We’ll see.” Ballmer also emphasized that the two companies have a “great” partnership in advertising.

Shares of Microsoft fell 6 cents to $31.02 in mid-day Nasdaq trade.