Here's why Microsoft could buy Salesforce

Who should buy Salesforce?
Who should buy Salesforce?   

Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella has made some bold moves since taking over the world's largest software company last year. But nothing like a $50 billion-plus acquisition.

At least one analyst sees it as a real possibility.

Bloomberg reported on Wednesday, citing people with knowledge of the matter, that Salesforce.com hired financial advisors upon being approached by potential buyers. While much of the speculation immediately turned to rival Oracle, Alex Zukin of investment bank Stephens says Microsoft makes the most sense.

Nadella has made cloud computing his No. 1 priority as CEO, and even projected at a company conference this week that Microsoft could reach $20 billion in cloud revenue by 2018, up from a current annualized rate of $6.3 billion. The centerpiece of growth is Azure, the cloud hosting platform that competes with Amazon Web Services.

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Microsoft and Salesforce tightened their relationship in December, making it easier to run Salesforce on Windows Mobile phones and in Office. Owning Salesforce would enable Nadella to control the entire cloud suite.

"Microsoft is trying to be the operating system across business, consumer and the Internet of Things," said Zukin, who has an "overweight" rating on Salesforce and doesn't officially cover Microsoft or Oracle. "They have the platform and productivity apps, but they really don't have the killer enterprise app."

Salesforce shares jumped 12 percent to $74.65 on Wednesday after the report surfaced, lifting the San Francisco-based company's stock market value close to $49 billion. The stock was down more than 3.5 percent midmorning Thursday. Microsoft is valued at $397 billion and Oracle is worth $195 billion.

Oracle front-runner to buy Salesforce?
Oracle front-runner to buy Salesforce?   

Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, declined to comment, as did representatives from Microsoft and Oracle.

Zukin doesn't see Benioff, who spent much of his career at Oracle before starting Salesforce in 1999, selling to his former employer and longtime competitor "unless something was really wrong."

Analysts at Canaccord Genuity and FBR Capital Markets disagree.

"Oracle is the most logical buyer in our opinion," wrote Canaccord's Richard Davis, who recommends buying Salesforce shares. "Larry Ellison could be looking for a CEO heir-apparent and he may prefer Benioff to lead the firm rather than the joint head combination of Mark Hurd and Safra Catz."

Marc Benioff, chairman and chief executive officer of Salesforce.com.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Marc Benioff, chairman and chief executive officer of Salesforce.com.

Davis added that snapping up Salesforce could "turbocharge" Oracle's cloud business, which only amounts to about 4 percent of total revenue.

Dan Ives, an analyst at FBR, wrote that Oracle is "desperate to establish itself as a leader in the cloud," and could easily integrate with Salesforce because of the tight technical and management relationships.

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As for other potential acquirers, there aren't many in the U.S. that are big enough. Among technology companies only Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon and IBM, along with Microsoft and Oracle, have the available market cap.

Then again, there may be no deal at all.