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Japan's Rakuten buys chat app Viber for $900 million to expand digital empire

Viber's Founder and Chief Executive Marco Talmon gestures during a news conference at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in this Februar
Viber's Founder and Chief Executive Marco Talmon gestures during a news conference at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in this Februar

By Chang-Ran Kim

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten Inc, controlled by billionaire Hiroshi Mikitani, will buy call and messaging app provider Viber Media Inc for $900 million in a deal that would more than double the number of users in its digital empire.

Rakuten offers services from financing to shopping to online video on its e-commerce platform, the largest in Japan. But in the face of a shrinking population and weak consumer spending at home, Mikitani is trying to re-invent Rakuten as a one-stop-site for a global audience.

Privately held Viber, run from Cyprus by Israeli entrepreneur Talmon Marco, will add 300 million users to Rakuten's existing 200 million users, Mikitani told reporters in Tokyo.

"This acquisition... will take Rakuten to a different level," said Mikitani, who is also the company's chief executive. The all-cash deal was announced after Rakuten reported an 80 percent jump in its 2013 operating profit.

"Developing this messaging system on our own would have been impossible," he added, saying Rakuten users could, for example, use Viber's instant messages to contact an online store while considering a purchase.

Viber is one of the top five most downloaded smartphone phone call and messaging apps, and counts the United States, Russia and Australia among its biggest markets.

Its chief executive Marco told the same media conference Rakuten's acquisition would help his company become a platform for digital content, not just a provider of free voice calls and messages.

A plethora of messaging apps, including the likes of Viber, are seeking to capitalize on the appeal of their free services, especially in emerging markets.

Viber is funded from the pockets of its founders and several private investors from the United States. It competes with instant messaging apps such as WeChat, a unit of Chinese Internet firm Tencent Holdings Ltd, U.S. rival WhatsApp, and Line, owned by Korean company Naver Corp.

Viber recently launched an instant messaging app for personal computers that allows users to make outgoing mobile calls to other Viber users and non-registered mobiles, making it a rival to Skype.

The acquisition by Rakuten is expected to be completed by the end of March, both companies said.

SHOPPING SPREE

Rakuten's e-commerce platform, Rakuten Ichiba, is the sixth largest in the world by sales.

The company puts a premium on its ability to communicate with customers. Last year, Mikitani told Reuters this personal touch will give Rakuten the edge over rivals like eBay Inc and Amazon.com Inc in Europe, where recession-hit retailers are struggling to tempt clients to spend.

Rakuten has spent big in recent years on a variety of overseas purchases to broaden its businesses and reach under what Mikitani calls its "Rakuten Ecosystem" strategy.

The company has acquired e-commerce providers from Brazil to Germany, as well as Toronto-based eReader business Kobo and online video providers Wuaki.tv of Spain and Viki of Singapore. In 2012, it made a large investment in website Pinterest.

Strong profit growth has contributed to its spending firepower.

In the 12 months ended December 31, Rakuten's operating profit jumped 80 percent to 90.2 billion yen ($882.89 million), marking a sixth consecutive year of record earnings, though lagging the average 99.9 billion yen projected by 18 analysts polled by Thomson Reuters Starmine.

Net profit doubled to 43.5 billion yen, while revenue rose 30 percent to 518.6 billion yen.

(Reporting by Chang-Ran Kim; Writing by Miral Fahmy; Editing by Ryan Woo)

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