The attempt by China's biggest search engine, Baidu, to buy a leading apps platform epitomizes Chinese Internet giants' quickening steps in mobile Internet, even though some question if the company to be bought is worth the price offered.
NASDAQ-listed Baidu Inc. announced on Tuesday its bid to buy all equity interests in smartphone apps distributor 91 Wireless Websoft for 1.9 billion U.S. dollars. The deal, if completed, will mark China's biggest merger and acquisition in the Internet market after Yahoo's 1-billion-U.S. dollar deal with Alibaba in 2005.
Analysts viewed the alliance as complementary in that Baidu will promote 91 Wireless's smartphone app distribution systems, and in return, Baidu will be better able to contend for a position as a leading access portal for mobile Internet.
"Through the acquisition, Baidu not only gains access to app distribution, it will also attract around 100,000 app developers to its own platform in the future," according to Ge Jia, an Internet analyst who was quoted in a Tuesday report by the Beijing News.
Ge said that digital mapping, voice, and app distribution represent the three battle grounds in the mobile Internet market in the future, and the deal could turn around Baidu's current disadvantages in a market that already boasts strong rivals including Tencent and Alibaba.
On the same day as Baidu's announcement, China's e-commerce giant Alibaba also confirmed that it has made a strategic investment in outbound travel site qyer.com, as it seeks to boost its travel offerings, including plane tickets and hotels, on its marketplace site Taobao.
Industrial analysts even labeled this year's mergers and acquisitions in the Internet industry as major players' efforts to split the mobile Internet market and obtain a lion's share.
In May, Baidu announced its plan to buy the online video business of PPS in order to rival industry leader Youku Tudou. Just one month earlier, Alibaba revealed it would take an 18-percent share in Sina Corp's microblogging service Weibo and a 28-percent stake in digital mapping company AutoNavi Holdings Ltd.
Ge Jia said that Baidu expects to attract large numbers of advertisers through its purchase of 91 Wireless. Data shows that 12.9 billion apps had been downloaded through 91 Wireless's two leading smartphone app distribution platforms in China as of Dec. 2012.
However, some believe that the 1.9-bln-U.S.-dollar tender by Baidu is too high for a company with an estimated value of only 140 million U.S. dollars two years ago.
"Baidu has no better choices because its strategic arrangements for the mobile Internet came too late and it has been at a disadvantaged position. So it is seeking to change the status quo through the costly deal," said Wang Jun, a mobile Internet analyst with Analysys International.
Data from the China Internet Networks Information Center show that China's online population reached 564 million as of the end of last year, with more than 74 percent of them, or 420 million, using cell phones to access the Internet.
"The Internet giants will not miss any opportunity amid the boom of mobile Internet," said IT commentator Hong Bo. In a report published Tuesday by the China Business News, Hong said that Alibaba's advantages lie in its strong capabilities to do business, while Tencent has flagship apps including WeChat, a free app that enables all-round communications in text, voice, picture and video form.
However, the commentator added that with advantages in technology, Baidu is also seeking to become a titan in app distribution through the acquisition of 91 Wireless.