by Jean-Louis Gassée
Microsoft, after its highly visible 2011 bet on Nokia, could have decided to go one step further and buy Nokia to become a fully integrated smartphone. That it didn't happen doesn't portend a great future for Windows Phone.
Last week, the Wall Street Journal outed Microsoft's unsuccessful attempt to acquire Nokia:
Microsoft recently held advanced talks with Nokia about buying its handset business, people familiar with the matter said, as laggards in the fast-moving mobile market struggle to gain ground.
Many saw an acquisition as an inevitable next step, that by acquiring the Finnish handset maker Microsoft could "finish the job" that they started when they licensed a special Windows Phone to Nokia. It would be a blessed union of two vigilant, watchful companies: Microsoft had watched as Android and iOS made its own OS a distant also ran; Nokia, once the world's largest cell phone maker, couldn't help but notice that Google and Apple had killed its handset business from both the high and low ends.
But, according to the WSJ, the parlay came to a negative and apparently definitive end:
The discussions faltered over price and worries about Nokia's slumping market position, among other issues, these people said. One of the people said talks took place as recently as this month but aren't likely to be revived.
To call Nokia's fall a "slump" is more than polite. The company saw its market share fall from 39% in 2009 -- more than 100 million handsets per quarter -- to an estimated (and angrily debated) 3% by the end of 2012.
Microsoft hasn't done much better with its mobile software. In 2008, Windows Mobile OS held a 11% market share, even as the underlying Windows CE engine was getting long in the tooth, particularly when compared to the Unix-ish Android and iOS engines. With a modern NT kernel, Microsoft's mobile OS was reborn as Windows Phone 8 and scored a modest 3.2% market share in Q1 2013. This number comes from IDC, the "research" group that has assured us that come 2016, Microsoft will be the number 2 mobile OS provider with a 19.2% share:
Behold the vision and precision of IDC's psychics: Back in June 2012, they could see four years into the future and predict that Windows Phone would edge out iOS... by two tenths of a percent!
We've heard the Microsoft-is-buying-a-handset-maker rumors before. Starting in 2007 and recurring year after year, Microsoft was said to be eyeing RIM/Blackberry. For some, yours truly included in January 2012, the RIM story was compellingly straightforward: RIM's clientèle of loyal, hardcore Blackberry users in businesses and governments made it an ideal fit for the Redmond giant.
Microsoft's defenders will argue that RIM '07 was too expensive. Priced at $200 a share (they're running at about $14 today), RIM would have cost more than a $100B before any acquisition premium. At the time, Microsoft was valued at approximately $250B (similar to today's $277B). Ideal or not, the match didn't make sense for Microsoft shareholders. Then, when RIM's price began to slide, the Blackberry was seen as having lost too much of its shine, too much of its market momentum. The company was damaged goods. (Or, as we might have forgotten, the two co-CEOs, Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, the ones who spoke in tongues, may have proved too difficult for even Steve Ballmer to deal with.)
Someday, Microsoft's inability to grab RIM might be seen as a signal failure, a key episode in the company's slide into irrelevance in the smartphone market. I doubt anyone will see Nokia in a similar light, as the "one who got away".
The "MicroNokia" relationship has been challenging from the start. In February 2011, Nokia committed itself to a special partnership with Microsoft. It would ditch its operating systems (Symbian, Meego, QT) and become a beacon and standard bearer for Windows Phone 7. Money changed hands: $250M of "platform support" per quarter was sent from Redmond to Espoo in order to offset the unspecified Windows Phone licensing payments that flowed in the opposite direction.
This messy, technologically and culturally unsound arrangement only got worse when Stephen Elop, the former Microsoft exec now running Nokia, announced the switch to Windows Phone ten months before the company would end up shipping devices that ran the new (and problematic) OS. Unsurprisingly, Nokia's revenue evaporated, leaving it with losses and a minuscule 5% market share (including Symbian-based smartphones).
Why Elop would make an announcement that effectively Osborned the business still mystifies and enrages Nokia supporters such as Tomi Ahonen who keeps calling for Elop's head in long, irate blog posts. (In industry lore, to "Osborne" is to prematurely announce a product that so clearly obsoletes your current offering that it kills revenue. The suicidal maneuver is named in loving memory of portable computer pioneer Adam Osborne who destroyed his business by bragging that his next product would be so much better than the current one.)
I'm also mystified, but for another reason. I can't fathom why Nokia picked Windows Phone instead of Android, whose explosive success was obvious even as early as 2010 when the company ditched its CEO. (I'm a little biased here as, in June 2010, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece titled Science Fiction: Nokia goes Android.)
Nokia's excuses for not adopting Android were vague, ranging from "we don't want to lose control of our destiny", to Microsoft being a "stronger partner" (read: They paid us). The potential-loss-of-destiny rhetoric falls flat, especially when you look at Android's licensing terms and see the freedom Samsung and others enjoy with their interpretations of the platform. (We've heard that Nokia and Google once talked, but we don't yet know the reason for their not becoming highly visible partners.)
Today, investors say Nokia is worth about $15B, a tenth of its 2007 peak (I'm excluding the 2000 Internet Bubble number from the comparison). Even with a "25% acquisition premium", a Nokia acquisition would cost Microsoft less than 10% of its capitalization. So, contrary to the charitable explanation offered to the WSJ by "persons familiar with the matter", price couldn't have been an obstacle. That leaves us with Nokia's "slump": Microsoft thinks Nokia would be unable to carry Windows Phone to an influential, sustainable market position.
Nokia's revenue keeps sliding down and, after a brief incursion into the black, it keeps losing money. Is there anything in sight that will reverse the trend? It's doubtful that the company can try for the high end by offering better hardware than Samsung, nor can they squeeze into a low end that's inhabited by official and unofficial Android clones that are swiftly killing off feature phones. This leaves Nokia's future as an independent company in doubt and logically gives rise to more acquisition speculation.
And what will happen to Windows Phone? We now hear that Microsoft is paying developers as much as $100,000 to write or port an application to the platform. This is a rational move on Microsoft's part, an attempt to create the critical mass that doesn't seem to be able to happen naturally. But it can also be seen as desperation, an admission that Windows Phone is having trouble gaining momentum as developers and customers are embraced in a downward spiral.
One can't imagine that Ballmer will call it a day and cede the field to Google and Apple. Personally, I admire his never-give-up attitude, always talking up the future, unfazed by past bold pronouncements gone wrong, but enthusiasm isn't a strategy. And in the smartphone market, Microsoft doesn't have many moves left. Regardless of the technical merits of its new mobile OS, momentum seems elusive; market forces that once worked against Windows competitors in the PC field now seem to confine Windows Phone to an insignificant market share against the two dominant and their complementary business models.
We don't know yet how Google's acquisition of Motorola will fare, but the Android platform is healthy enough without it. The same can't be said of Windows Phone without Nokia, which leads one to believe there will be a forced marriage between the once proud Finnish handset maker and an ambitious player, probably Chinese -- with Microsoft providing a substantial dowry once again.
In the meantime, we can count on IDC to provide fresh numbers... for 2017.