Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer appears to be planning a major reorganization. The apparent objective is to help the company move toward becoming a "devices and services company" as presented in the company's annual shareholder letter last October.
But, the question for investors is whether this is a crafty move that will help Microsoft launch renewed profitable growth, or is it leadership further confusing customers and analysts while leaving Microsoft languishing in stalled markets? After all, the shares are up some 31% the last 6 months and it is a good time to decide if an investor should buy, hold or sell.
There are a lot of things not going well for Microsoft right now.
Everyone knows PC sales have started dropping. IDC recently lowered its forecast for 2013 from a decline of 1.3% to negative 7.8%. The mobile market is already larger than PC sales, and IDC now expects tablet sales (excluding smartphones) will surpass PCs in 2015. Because the PC is Microsoft's "core" market – producing almost all the company's profitability – declining sales are not a good thing.
Microsoft hoped Windows 8 would reverse the trend. That has not happened. Unfortunately, ever since being launched Windows 8 has underperformed the horrific sales of Vista. Eight months into the new product it is selling at about half the rate Vista did back in 2007 – which was the worst launch in company history. Win8 still has fewer users than Vista, and at 4% share 1/10th the share of market leaders Windows 7 and XP.
Microsoft is launching an update to Windows 8, called Windows 8.1 or "blue." But rather than offering a slew of new features to please an admiring audience the release looks more like an early "fix" of things users simply don't like, such as bringing back the old "start" button. Reviewers aren't talking about how exciting the update is, but rather wondering if these admissions of poor initial design will slow conversion to tablets.
And tablets are still the market where Microsoft isn't – even if it did pioneer the product years before the iPad. Bloomberg reported that Microsoft has been forced to cut the price of RT. So far historical partners such as HP and HTC have shunned Windows tablets, leaving Acer the lone company putting out Windows a mini-tab, and Dell (itself struggling with its efforts to go private) the only company declaring a commitment to future products.
And whether it's too late for mobile Windows is very much a real question. At the last shareholder meeting Nokia's investors cried loud and hard for management to abandon its commitment to Microsoft in favor of returning to old operating systems or moving forward with Android. This many years into the game, and with the Google and Apple ecosystems so far in the lead, Microsoft needed a game changer if it was to grab substantial share. But Win 8 has not proven to be a game changer.
In an effort to develop its own e-reader market Microsoft dumped some $300million into Barnes & Noble's Nook last year. But the e-reader market is fast disappearing as it is overtaken by more general-purpose tablets such as the Kindle Fire. Yet, Microsoft appears to be pushing good money after bad by upping its investment by another $1B to buy the rest of Nook, apparently hoping to obtain enough content to keep the market alive when Barnes & Noble goes the way of Borders. But chasing content this late, behind Amazon, Apple and Google, is going to be much more costly than $1B – and an even lower probability than winning in hardware or software.
Then there's the new Microsoft Office. In late May Microsoft leadership hoped investors would be charmed to hear that 1M $99 subscriptions had been sold in 3.5 months. However, that was to an installed base of hundreds of millions of PCs – a less than thrilling adoption rate for such a widely used product. Companies that reached 1M subscribers from a standing (no installed base) start include Instagram in 2.5 months, Spotify in 5 months, Dropbox in 7 months and Facebook (which pioneered an entire new marketplace in Social) in only 10 months. One could have easily expected a much better launch for a product already so widely used, and offered at about a third the price of previous licenses.
A new xBox was launched on May 21st. Unfortunately, like all digital markets gaming is moving increasingly mobile, and consoles show all the signs of going the way of desktop computers. Microsoft hopes xBox can become the hub of the family room, but we're now in a market where a quarter of homes lead by people under 50 don't really use "the family room" any longer.
xBox might have had a future as an enterprise networking hub, but so far Kinnect has not even been marketed as a tool for business, and it has not yet incorporated the full network functionality (such as Skype) necessary to succeed at creating this new market against competitors like Cisco.
Thankfully, after more than a decade losing money, xBox reached break-even recently. However, margins are only 15%, compared to historical Microsoft margins of 60% in "core" products. It would take a major growth in gaming, plus a big market share gain, for Microsoft to hope to replace lost PC profits with xBox sales. Microsoft has alluded to xBox being the next iTunes, but lacking mobility, or any other game changer, it is very hard to see how that claim holds water.
The Microsoft re-org has highlighted 3 new divisions focused on servers and tools, Skype/Lync and xBox. What is to happen with the business which has driven three decades of Microsoft growth – operating systems and office software – is, well, unclear. How upping the focus on these three businesses, so late in the market cycle, and with such low profitability will re-invigorate Microsoft's value is, well, unclear.
In fact, given how Microsoft has historically made money it is wholly unclear what being a "devices and services" company means. And this re-organization does nothing to make it clear.
My past columns on Microsoft have led some commenters to call me a "Microsoft hater." That is not true. More apt would be to say I am a Microsoft bear. Its historical core market is shrinking, and Microsoft's leadership invested far too much developing new products for that market in hopes the decline would be delayed – which did not work. By trying to defend and extend the PC world Microsoft's leaders chose to ignore the growing mobile market (smartphones and tablets) until far too late – and with products which were not game changers.
Although Microsoft's leaders invested heavily in acquisitions and other markets (Skype, Nook, xBox recently) those very large investments came far too late, and did little to change markets in Microsoft's favor. None of these have created much excitement, and recently Rick Sherland at Nomura securities came out with a prediction that Microsoft might well sell the xBox division (a call I made in this column back in January.)
As consumers, suppliers and investors we like the idea of a near-monopoly. It gives us comfort to believe we can trust in a market leader to bring out new products upon which we can rely – and which will continue to make long-term profits. But, good as this feels, it has rarely been successful. Markets shift, and historical leaders fall as new competitors emerge; largely because the old leadership continues investing in what they know rather than shifting investments early into new markets.
This Microsoft reorganization appears to be rearranging the chairs on the Titanic. The mobile iceberg has slashed a huge gash in Microsoft's PC hull. Leadership keeps playing familiar songs, but the boat cannot float without those historical PC profits. Investors would be smart to flee in the lifeboat of recent share price gains.