Japan’s Rakuten shells out $900M to make Viber its “consumer engagement platform”

Recent reports of messaging firm Viber’s acquisition were correct – except for the price and the buyer. It’s not an Asian messaging firm that has picked up the Israeli-Cypriot outfit; it’s an Asian e-commerce giant, namely Japan’s Rakuten. And the price isn’t up-to-$400 million; it’s a considerably chunkier $900 million.
As Viber has 300 million registered users — a nugget that emerged on Friday; the previous official count was 200 million — that works out to $3 per user.
Viber’s four years of existence have been entirely bootstrapped. While the company doesn’t have quite the reach of WhatsApp, Facebook(s fb) Messenger or WeChat, it’s a solid rival to the likes of South Korea’s KakaoTalk and Japan’s Line. It’s also a direct competitor to Skype(s msft), boasting a similar cross-platform approach to free and paid VoIP and video chat.
Now it appears Viber will add a communications dimension to Rakuten’s expanding digital portfolio, which all hinges on a unified ID mechanism that’s associated with a rewards program. Other Rakuten acquisitions in the last couple of years include ebook firm Kobo, TV show platform Viki and video streaming platform Wuaki.tv, and Rakuten also runs a variety of travel and financial web services and has invested in Pinterest.
Rakuten also seems to want to make Viber a gaming platform, perhaps in the style of rivals WeChat and Line. As Rakuten chief Hiroshi Mikitani said in a statement:

“Viber delivers the most consistently high quality and convenient messaging and VoIP experience available. Additionally, Viber has introduced a great sticker market and has tremendous potential as a gaming platform. Simply put, Viber understands how people actually want to engage and have built the only service that truly delivers on all fronts. This makes Viber the ideal total consumer engagement platform for Rakuten as we seek to bring our deep understanding of the consumer to vast new audiences through our dynamic ecosystem of Internet Services.”

As Rakuten’s statement mentioned Viber helping it “penetrate new markets with multiple digital content offerings,” Viber users can no doubt look forward to having new services dangled in front of them. Rakuten has a philosophy that it calls “Shopping is Entertainment.”
Marriages of e-commerce and communications have gone horribly wrong in the past — eBay’s stewardship of Skype, anyone? — but times have changed, as Facebook would no doubt argue. Perhaps Rakuten is onto something.