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Here’s What Salesforce’s Marc Benioff Said About the Microsoft-LinkedIn Deal

September 14, 2016, 5:26 PM UTC
Photograph by Anna Kuperberg

Salesforce boss Marc Benioff said he’s sorry his company lost its bid to buy LinkedIn when Microsoft swooped in with a $26 billion offer in June, but he appeared philosophical about it during an interview with Bloomberg TV on Tuesday.

“I’d do everything differently, but this goes into the category of ‘you can’t win them all,” replied Benioff when asked what he would do if there were a do-over. “And in our industry that’s especially true when you’re going up against Microsoft, which has all the power, all the money, all the resources and kind of that monopolistic control, you’re at a disadvantage.”

This statement harkens back to a time in the 1990s when Microsoft’s power was unchallenged by the likes of today’s powerhouses: Google (GOOG) and Apple (AAPL), and even Salesforce (CRM). At the turn of the century, Microsoft’s domination of PC software with its Windows-Office combo was the subject of an antitrust challenge by the U.S. Department of Justice. In 1999, a federal judge ruled Microsoft to be a monopoly to be split up, but that finding was thrown out.

Fast forward to the 2010s, you don’t hear many people talking about Microsoft—now under still-relatively new chief executive Satya Nadella—in terms of monopoly power anymore, which is why Benioff’s comments stood out.

Then again, with its cash trove of more than $113 billion, nearly $17 billion in free cash flow, and the ability to get credit, you can see Benioff’s point: There’s not much Microsoft could not buy if the Windows giant makes it a priority.

Salesforce and Microsoft have had an interesting relationship over the years, wavering between allies and competitors. Microsoft viewed Salesforce, founded in 1998, and its growing market dominance in the customer relationship management (CRM) space with increasing alarm over the years. Salespeople use CRM software to register leads, track sales calls, and much more.

Microsoft (MSFT) ended up launching its own CRM software, which ran on-premises, to challenge Salesforce. But it was clear that Salesforce’s model of delivering its software over the Internet—in the Software-as-a-Service model it pioneered—was what customers wanted. Through this delivery method, the software maker handles all the hardware and software updates running in its own data centers, then delivering the product to customers online. Microsoft now offers CRM online and claimed a big win over Salesforce on Monday when HP (HPQ) said it was moving from Salesforce (and Oracle (ORCL)) sales and support software to Microsoft products.

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The LinkedIn buy, which should enable Microsoft CRM Online customers to tap LinkedIn’s huge database of professional contacts, shows Microsoft is dead serious about challenging Salesforce in this market.

During his Bloomberg TV interview, Benioff shrugged off the threat, noting that Salesforce remains the top seller in CRM, reiterating claims that it remains the fastest growing software company in the top ten. He also downplayed Oracle’s recent acquisition of NetSuite, which makes online software for managing inventories and resources.

“Oracle’s making a desperation move there to boost its cloud revenue,” Benioff said, noting that his mentor and rival, Oracle chief executive Larry Ellison, had owned a big stake in NetSuite.

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“Maybe now Larry can boost his cloud revenue and get closer to that $10 billion number,” he remarked. Both Benioff and Ellison have set their sights on selling $10 billion worth of online software annually—and beating the other to that milestone. Oracle will report its quarterly earnings on Thursday.

As has been reported ad nauseam, Benioff launched his career at Oracle (ORCL). Once Benioff left the company to start Salesforce, his relationship with Ellison became complicated, and the two executives have enjoyed a regular jousts in the press ever since.

For more on Salesforce’s rivalries, read: Larry Ellison Takes Another Shot at Salesforce

Benioff said on Tuesday that this is all in good fun: “Business is a lot like tennis. You get on the court with your friends, you play as hard as you can, you get really upset, you say crazy things, you go off the court, you go and have lunch and have a glass of wine, and remember how much you love them.”