Assembling the deliverable

Comcast’s digital content delivery software subsidiary ThePlatform made its first acquisition this week, picking up tiny social networking startup Chirp Interactive. Founded just one year ago, the San Francisco-based company has developed an interactive screen saver that collects updates from websites like Facebook and Flickr. Structured as an asset acquisition, ThePlatform will use the VC-backed company’s technology and select employees to build similar social features into its own content distribution and management system.

Comcast bought ThePlatform in 2006, early in its efforts to build a viable online video distribution business, and operates the business as an independent entity. Since 2006, it’s been reported that the cable giant has shelled out nearly half a billion dollars on five online deals since the beginning of 2006, including its purchases of movie review and ticketing website Fandango in April 2007 and social networking site Plaxo in May 2008. Comcast’s VC arm, Comcast Interactive Capital, has also been banking heavily on online startup. One recipient of Comcast’s capital is tiny video and advertising distribution company Revver, which incidentally was picked up by LiveUniverse in February.

Going forward, we ask where Comcast and its VC arm will be setting their sights. Well, mobile content distribution, of course. In fact, Comcast participated in a $12.6m seed-round funding of Boston-based mobile WiMax startup Cartiza earlier this month. It also joined Google, Time Warner and other industry behemoths in a $3.2bn round in WiMax company Clearwire in April. After building up a healthy reserve of content, a video and advertising distribution platform and increasing social networking capabilities, the need to converge these platforms on mobile devices is clear, and Comcast is making the moves to do just this.

Selected Comcast acquisitions

Date announced Target Target description Deal value
May 14, 2008 Plaxo Online address book synchronization $160m*
April 11, 2007 Fandango Online movie tickets & reviews $192m*
June 28, 2006 ThePlatform Digital media publishing & delivery $90m*

Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase *Reported values

Microsoft makes meaningful buy

Since shelling out nearly $10bn in a year and a half to reinvent itself as an online contender, Microsoft, on July 1, confirmed reports of its purchase of online search and natural language vendor Powerset. Microsoft aims to add Powerset’s Web search linguists, engineers and technology to its Live Search division. On the heels of its $1.2bn purchase of enterprise text analytics giant FAST Search and Transfer in January, Microsoft inked this much smaller deal to enhance its consumer Web search.

Founded in 2006, Powerset released its Web search technology earlier this year. In partnership with Xerox’s PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), the San Francisco startup, which has raised some $12.5m in funding, has been developing search software that reads online text and discerns semantics as well syntax. So far, Powerset’s semantic technology has been publicly tested only on Wikipedia and fellow open source encyclopedia Freebase, both of which have a solid structure that Powerset leverages. The company has also been in talks with major publishing companies about an ad-supported service it has in the works.

With Powerset having been sold to an established technology company to realize its plans, we wonder what that will mean for the rest of the semantic technology companies. Currently, the poster child of the market is Radar Networks, which is backed by $18m in VC. It is developing a semantic social networking application, Twine, which is still in private beta and due to be released this fall. There’s also New York-based semantic search engine Hakia, also in private beta, which has landed over $20m in funding. However, if Powerset, which was often referred to as ‘the next Google,’ got picked up for just $100m (as the rumors have it), then what’s the exit picture for the two remaining rivals, both of which have raised more money than Powerset? Maybe we need to Google the answer.

Selected Microsoft search acquisitions

Date announced Target Deal value Target description
July 1, 2008 Powerset $100m (reported) Semantic Web search engine
January 8, 2008 Fast Search and Transfer $1.2bn Enterprise search software

Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase