Buying and building at Google

Since the beginning of 2007, Google has spent nearly $3.5bn on research and development. The freewheeling company, which makes liberal use of the ‘beta’ tag for many of the in-house projects it rolls out, often goes to great pains to present a corporate portrait of uninhibited engineers running wild on their whiteboards, coming up with the next Great Idea. (All the while, founders Sergey and Larry benevolently look on.)

With all the building going on at Google, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the company is also buying. In fact, since the beginning of 2007, Google has averaged about a deal a month. That’s about the same acquisition pace as both Cisco and Oracle over the last 18 months, although the sizes of the deals – and the rationale – are very different. Google, for instance, has never purchased a public company.

Instead of the consolidation plays inked by other large vendors, Google tends to pick up small bits of technology or even a team of engineers that the company can eventually turn into a product. Sometimes, the acquisitions show up directly in Google products, such as its mid-2005 purchase of Android Inc. At the time, Android was reportedly working on an operating system for mobile phones, which Google officially unveiled last November. Another example is Google’s purchase in November 2006 of iRows, which became the spreadsheet offering in Google Docs.

Other Google purchases show up only as features in more significant offerings. In May 2007, for instance, Google picked up GreenBorder Technologies, a small company with a fitful history and a doubtful commercial outlook, but some solid technology. Specifically, GreenBorder developed a virtualized browser session, which isolated any browser-based security threats from the user’s computer.

However, not much had been seen from this ‘sandbox’ technology over the past year. At least, not until Google rolled out its new Chrome browser on September 1. One of the key selling points of the would-be killer of Internet Explorer: security. According to Google, Chrome prevents malware from installing itself on a computer through a browser as well as by blocking one tab from infecting another tab. In our opinion, it won’t take many people switching to Chrome to justify the $20m-30m we estimate Google spent on GreenBorder for that acquisition to pay off.

Google deal flow

Year Deal volume
YTD 2008 3
2007 15
2006 11
2005 6
2004 3

Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase