Is Path next?

April 10, 2012: 3:56 PM ET

Facebook's $1 billion acquisition of Instagram has many asking who might snap up the "intimate" social network Path.

By Richard Nieva, contributor

pathFORTUNE -- Facebook's acquisition of photo-sharing app Instagram for $1 billion on Monday set a new precedent for the social network. With lofty goals and gobs of cash in the wings thanks to its impending initial public offering, Facebook may not be done shopping. What about Path, the small-scale social network started by one of Facebook's own?

CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave the impression that growth by acquisition would not be the company's modus operandi, writing on his Facebook timeline, "We don't plan on doing many more of these, if any at all." But the company is no stranger to buyouts, having acquired several properties in its history already, including file hosting service drop.io and Amsterdam-based software design company Sofa -- one of Facebook's latest acquisitions before yesterday. Many of these deals have been so-called acq-hires, motivated as much by the personnel as the products involved.

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That doesn't mean there aren't a few more high-profile deals ahead. Ireland-based gambling website Paddy Power is already taking bets on Facebook's next buyout. (Check-in service Foursquare is the favorite at 4 to 1.) But Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley futurist and managing director of foresight for Discern Analytics, says those slightly bigger companies, like the runway hit photo-sharing site Pinterest, "might be too attached to the idea that they've got a shot [at growing on their own]." Other options might be video services Tout or Machinima, if Facebook wanted to bolster its features in that category, says Lou Kerner, a financial analyst focusing on social web companies at Second Shares.

A hypothetical tie-up with Path, meanwhile, would be a reunion for CEO Dave Morin and his former employer. Morin led major projects at Facebook until he left in 2010 to launch his own startup. While Morin worked at Facebook to expand its reach -- heading such developments as Facebook Connect and Facebook Platform, which opened the floodgates to more users and app developers -- his goal at Path has been to make interaction more intimate, restricting users to 150 friends. Path did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Path has grown steadily in a short period. The app's latest update includes integration with Nike+ (NKE) products, which help monitor and share workout information with friends. The company says it has 2 million users and claims 70% of them return every week. Sources have told BusinessInsider that Zuckerberg and his team are "afraid" of Path. That may or may not be true, but like Instagram, Path shares many of Facebook's features but was developed for mobile devices, rather than adapted to them after the fact.

Money doesn't seem to be an object for Facebook, which declined to comment, heading into its sky-high market debut next month. But money may also not be the concern from Morin, who reportedly turned down $100 million offer from Google (GOOG) last year.

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What Facebook would do with Path is another question entirely. It could shut it down, like it has acquisitions past, and try to take back the hours of user engagement that had been siphoned off. (Path claims it can coexist with Facebook. The two companies already have contacts integrations, for instance.) Or it can let Path grow separately, like it has pledged with Instagram. "The trick is, even if you're a big company, how do you keep it small?" says Saffo."The smart thing would be to let something like Path grow."

What's certain is that Path is likely to remain attractive. It already has potentially lucrative assets, including coveted and sophisticated patents that Path likely has because of its design edge, says Saffo. A deal with Facebook though? "There are probably only two people who know the answer to that," says Saffo. "But it is definitely what makes the story all the more interesting."

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